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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Island asbestos woe

Island asbestos woe

SCIENTISTS are concerned a plan to abandon research at Macquarie Island is based on budget pressures exacerbated by asbestos contamination, which could cost tens of millions to clear up.

It is understood up to half the buildings on Macquarie Island contain asbestos and the Antarctic Division is under pressure to eradicate the material in accordance with national guidelines.

The costly measure would have to come out of the existing budget, which scientists say is already stretched.

They say budget cuts are the real reason behind Antarctic Division moves to pull out of Macquarie Island, Australia's only permanent sub-Antarctic research station.

The State Government yesterday echoed the concerns that funding was behind the plans to leave Macquarie.

Economic Development Minister Lara Giddings called on the Federal Government to provide the Antarctic Division with enough funding to continue its important research on the island.

The Antarctic Division yesterday said no firm decision had been made in relation to the future of its base.

Division chief scientist Michael Stoddart said discussions were ongoing.

On Tuesday the Antarctic Division confirmed it was considering withdrawing from the island nature reserve, which lies about 1500km south-east of Tasmania.

Prof Stoddart said yesterday whatever decision was reached it would be made "on the basis of scientific research". He denied that budget constraints were behind the plans.

But a scientist who spoke to The Mercury yesterday, who did not want to be named, said staff had been told about the financial pressures at a general meeting last year.

The scientist said the need to reduce spending at all stations had been outlined.

And the address had included an outline of the asbestos problem which, it had been estimated, could cost "tens of millions" of dollars.

Prof Stoddart confirmed the existence of asbestos on Macquarie but he had "no idea" what it might cost to fix.

Ms Giddings said she would write to federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell calling for the Antarctic Division to receive adequate funding to maintain its presence on Macquarie Island.

"Since 1948 Macquarie Island has been an important research centre studying elephant seals, seabirds and plant communities," she said.

"And more recently it has been an important site studying climate change."

But Prod Stoddart said all research could be conducted on Heard Island.


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