PCB in bottom sediments near the settlements in Svalbard

Old coal mining infrastructure in Svalbard.
Photo: Harald Faste Aas / Norwegian Polar Institute

The levels of PCB in surface soil in the Russian settlements in Svalbard are considerable. There is a legitimate risk that the contamination may spread further out into the fjords, and assimilate in the marine ecosystems.

What is being monitored?

PCB in bottom sediments

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The levels of PCB in sediments in Adventfjorden have decreased since the first measurements in 1998. In 2009, all the stations measured had concentrations at background level (class I). In Coles Bay, PCB levels are at background level (class I). In Billefjorden, PCB levels have increased since 1998, indicating leakages from Pyramiden. In 2009, one of the stations near Pyramiden showed elevated levels characterized as "moderate" (class III), other stations had levels lower than this. The levels of PCB in Grønfjorden sediments demonstrate no clear trend over time.

Status and trend

The levels off Pyramiden rose considerably from 1998 to 2009, indicating that leakage is taking place from local sources in the abandoned mining settlement. In 2009, a station near the settlement showed enhanced levels corresponding in status to class III ("moderate"). Four stations had class II ("good"), while one was down at the background level (class I).

The levels off Barentsburg rose from 1998 to 2005 and sank a little again from 2005 to 2009. In 2009, all the stations measured were down at the background level (class I), except for one off the main quay in Barentsburg, which was in class II ("good"). The levels in Adventfjorden and Colesbukta dropped in this period and were close to the background level.

The classes the measurements are compared with are a system developed by the Norwegian Climate and Pollution Agency (formerly the State Pollution Control Authority, now the Norwegian Environment Agency) to undertake simplified evaluations of the state of the environment. There are 5 classes, ranging from the background level (I) to very poor (V), and they represent an increasing degree of harm to life in the sea. The system is based on fjords on the mainland and is not particularly suitable for evaluations in the Far North.

Large quantities of sediments are washed out from glaciers in all the areas investigated and reported on here, which may mean that large amounts of pollutants are deposited without this being revealed in the measurements of concentrations.

Causal factors

Local sources are assumed to be the main cause of the high PCB levels in the seabed sediments off Pyramiden and Barentsburg. This is because PCBs in the facing of buildings and PCB contamination in the surface earth in both settlements are dispersing into the sea. The relative importance of local sources compared with far-transported PCBs is, however, not sufficiently well known.

Consequences

Many of the measurements of PCBs and other pollutants have been performed in sediments. The question is to what extent these contaminants spread to living organisms and what harm, if any, they do.

A study performed in 2001 revealed comparatively low levels of PCBs in the benthos off the settlements in Isfjorden, but there were higher concentrations near the settlements further out in the fjords (Hop et al. 2001).

In 2008, a study was carried out on the extent to which PCBs become concentrated in the food chains off Barentsburg. It showed that relatively sedentary species living in close contact with sediments contain the highest concentrations of pollutants. Species which swim freely in the water bodies and probably move in and out of the polluted area (e.g. cod and haddock) have levels that are roughly as high as in areas lacking local sources. This indicates that the measurable effect from Barentsburg is comparatively local. Relatively rapid dilution probably takes place so that the concentrations of pollutants in sediment and organisms decline comparatively quickly as the distance from the settlements increases (Evenset & Christensen 2009).

The effects the levels found may have on the organisms investigated remain unreported. It has been shown that PCB levels in higher species in Svalbard are sufficiently high to give harmful effects (see, for example, the MOSJ indicators for polar bear and glaucous gull).

By the end of 2010, more than 1200 samples of earth, paint, concrete, manufactured items and sediments had been collected and analysed. The PCB project has been a cooperative effort involving several Norwegian research and management institutions and Trust Arktikugol, the Russian mining company. It has been recommended that the contaminated sediments should not be disturbed.

Work is now taking place to collect products and waste containing PCBs, and a detailed plan to remove around 3000 capacitors containing PCBs in Barentsburg and Pyramiden is an important step in the right direction. Plans have also been drawn up to take precautions when moving earth, especially in the Russian settlements of Barentsburg and Pyramiden where it contains high concen­trations of PCBs, and to secure the dumping of contaminated earth and building waste.

About the monitoring

Considerable PCB contamination has been recorded in surface earth at the Russian settlements. It is important to monitor the spread of this to the sea and into the marine ecosystem. From 2007 to 2010, the Governor of Svalbard and the Norwegian Climate and Pollution Agency undertook a major cooperative project along with such bodies as Trust Arktikugol and several specialist institutions (Geological Survey of Norway, Akvaplan-niva, Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, and Typhoon) to reveal the sources of the pollution and clean it up.

Places and areas

Relations to other monitoring

Monitoring programme
International environmental agreements
Voluntary international cooperation
Related monitoring
Other