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Panel Urges Repairs for Antarctica Station

Science: Experts call for steps to correct problems with health, safety and environmental issues, praising site as unique vantage point to study Earth.

May 01, 1996|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

A White House panel of experts is urging that the highest priority be given to correcting critical health, safety and environmental problems at the U.S. South Pole Station, saying that an active American presence at the heart of the world's coldest and most isolated continent is "essential to U.S. interests."

In the first major review of U.S. activities in Antarctica in more than a decade, a National Science and Technology Council panel concluded that the $195-million annual research program conducted there by the National Science Foundation is an important way to maintain international peace on the world's last open continent in the face of long-standing, conflicting territorial claims.

Antarctica also offers a unique vantage point from which to study some of the Earth's most pressing scientific and environmental problems, the panel said. But it warned that "substantial progress in management efficiency" would be necessary if science foundation officials hope to maintain the current level of science there as research budgets dwindle.

The panel, consisting of 17 experts from federal research agencies, the Defense Department, the State Department and the National Security Council, scrutinized America's efforts in Antarctica at the request of Congress.

Some congressional experts have been concerned that the money could be better spent on research programs closer to home, while scientists and government officials alike were concerned about deteriorating conditions at the U.S. South Pole Station.

The panel, in a report made public Tuesday, said the United States should continue to operate its three main bases in the Antarctic year-round and praised the science foundation's cost-cutting measures. They stopped short, however, of endorsing an ambitious plan to replace the existing South Pole Station with a sleek, $139-million, energy-efficient complex.

Cornelius Sullivan, director of the science foundation's Office of Polar Programs, said he was pleased by the panel's conclusions but disappointed that it did not recommend construction of a station. The science foundation is already seeking $25 million to fix problems with the existing station ranging from power outages to fuel storage and overcrowding.

"Their report makes a clear statement about the national policy, the foreign policy and the national security interests served by the program" he said. "It secures the importance of the program and its future in very uncertain times in Washington.

"I was not pleased that we did not have a clear green light to go ahead with the South Pole station. I think it is essential," he said.

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