Saving Antarctica (and Us)

Some days (ok, most days), I have to dig deep to push myself to make the 1.5 mile round-trip walk to the local coffee shop. I try to convince myself I make up for my sloth by parking three rows away from the door at Trader Joe’s.

Then there’s Robert Swan.

archAt the age of 11, he became fascinated with Antarctica, and the pull did not wane as he grew up. The great era of polar exploration was over, but Swan decided he could achieve a first—walk from the edge of the continent to the South Pole, a distance of 900 miles, while pulling all the supplies he would need on a sledge. Swan and two others accomplished that feat in 1986 (with Swan losing 69 pounds in the process), then a few years later Swan and a different team made a similar trek in the Arctic, crossing ice sheets on foot to reach the North Pole—a hike of about 700 miles. Swan remains the only man to walk to both poles with no outside assistance along the way. He doesn’t call himself an explorer; instead, he’s a “polar traveler.”

I went to hear Swan talk about his past exploits and his upcoming project because later this year I’ll be writing two books on the polar regions. While most of the information Swan shared probably won’t make my books, I enjoyed seeing his pictures and hearing the challenges he faced as he made his two trips.

To give some perspective on the size of Antarctica, Swan put up a photo showing a member of his team surrounded by a huge expanse of white. In that moment, he explained, it would have been as if he and his partners were standing in the geographic center of the United States and they were the only people in the country. And to navigate that icy wilderness in the days before GPS and smartphones, all they used were a watch, a sextant, and the sun. If they missed their target, a U.S. research base at the pole, they could have been lost forever. Experts said they would die. Instead, they survived and missed the base by only a few hundred yards.

Swan made his journey shortly after NASA discovered the growing ozone hole over Antarctica. Without the protection of the ozone, Swan’s skin burned and his eyes turned grey. Global changes made since then have stopped the expansion of the ozone hole and eventually it should return to its earlier, healthier concentration. But that experience led Swan to see the impact human activity has on the atmosphere and climate and how the effects are pronounced at the poles.

Before his first trip to Antarctica, Swan turned to Jacques Cousteau for help. The underwater explorer said he would aid Swan if he promised not to leave behind any garbage or other signs of the walk to the pole. Swan agreed, even when that meant salvaging his ship, which sank before it could take him and his team to New Zealand at the end of the trip.

Cousteau also gave Swan the idea for his current project: 2041.  That year will mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Madrid Protocol, an international agreement that makes the continent a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” That means countries and private companies can’t exploit Antarctica’s natural resources, as is well underway in the Arctic. Swan wants to ensure that the limits set out by the protocol (which actually took effect in 1998 and so run until 2048) remain in place. “No one owns Antarctica,” he said, and he wants to make sure it stays that way.

Since his polar walks, Swan has taken part in three global environmental summits, helped remove tons of metal detritus left on Antarctica by Soviet researchers, and used his 2041 company (yes, he’s trying to earn a living with this, after his earlier trips left him deeply in debt several times) to organize trips to Antarctica. Swan wants to preserve the continent’s pristine nature and tell others about the effects of global warming on the polar regions and how changes there can affect the whole planet. A key goal going forward, he said, will be to work with China and India to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases and seek green sources of energy.


Swan’s E (for Educational) Base, which is powered solely by renewable energy.

Swan is also taking the renewable energy effort to Antarctica. Next year, Swan will lead another walking expedition to the South Pole. His team will meet its energy needs with special solar energy panels designed to work at extremely cold temperatures and biofuels made from food and wood pulp. Swan wants to highlight the need to move away from fossil fuels and show that if the can work in “the most inhospitable place on Earth,” they can work anywhere.

Years ago, I dreamed about going to Antarctica, before scientists knew the full extent of the challenges global warming presented to the continent (and the world), before traveling there became an item on more people’s bucket list. Maybe I’ll still get there (I would love to go before I write these two books and then deduct the trip as a business expense, but that probably ain’t gonna happen). So for now, I’ll live vicariously through people like Swan, and be glad they are not content to be simply polar travelers. They’re actively working to preserve the unique, frozen environments at the ends of Earth.

Dark Spot on the Enchanted Circle

You head north out of Taos, past the roads for the pueblo and the Rio Grande Gorge. You hit Route 522 and you’re on it—the Enchanted Circle, a road that loops around the area’s major mountains, including New Mexico’s tallest, Wheeler Peak. If you’re lucky, like I was last weekend, you set out in late September, when the aspens are starting to turn, painting the mountainsides yellow amidst the evergreens.

Aspens just outside of Questa

Aspens just outside of Questa

When you reach Questa, the circle curves east onto Route 38. To your right, more of the aspens shimmering in the still-emerging sunlight, with glimpses of the Red River along the way. And to the left—well, let’s just say a corporate presence has tainted that side of the circle.

New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment with its Enchanted Circle, relies on its natural beauty to attract tourists, who contribute greatly to the economy. And while some local folks might consider some of the outsiders a necessary evil—spend your money and then get the hell back to Texas—they don’t leave behind the kind of environmental devastation  Chevron has left in Questa.

Along the Red River, on the other side of the street.

Along the Red River, on the other side of the street.

I first learned about Questa earlier this year, when I read that Chevron’s molybdenum mine there was closing, costing the community about 300 much-needed jobs. That’s the reality in a poor state like New Mexico: extraction industries provide some of the best employment opportunities, even as they befoul the earth. Where will those 300 people go for work? How will lives be affected—perhaps even destroyed? I don’t have the answers, and I feel for those people, even as I hope that closing the mine will help restore the beauty on that side of the road, like the kind you can see on the other.

Chevron plans to tear down the mill.

Chevron plans to tear down the mill.

The first thing I noticed by the mining site was the color of the ground—yellow, in a chalky way, not like the almost golden-hued aspens. Then there was the sign announcing the site belonged to Chevron, followed by the empty mining mill close to the road.

What I didn’t see were the tailing ponds on the other side of Questa, where over the years Chevron dumped more than 100 million tons of tailings, or water and waste from the mining process. The tailings traveled through a nine-mile-long pipe, with some leaking out along the way. As the EPA put it, breaks in the pipe “resulted in the spilling of into and along the flood plains of the Red River, threatening [a] fishery and nearby endangered species habitats.” Other pollution from the mine has contaminated surface and ground water in the area. The principal pollutants, the EPA said, include arsenic, lead, molybdenum, and zinc.


A birds-eye view

The government put the Chevron site on the National Priorities List of Superfund Sites in 2011. The company began cleaning up waste the next year, and the work continues. This effort will “allow EPA to mitigate threats to public health and the environment from the release or potential release of hazardous substances, pollutants and contaminants.” But what about the damage already done? The mining in Questa started almost 100 years ago, and acid-generating waste rock has been sitting around the pit for several decades. Chevron admits it can’t control seepage from the tailing ponds, and the environmental group Amigos Bravos lists a number of problems the mining operation has caused over the years.

And let’s not forget the damage done to workers. In 2013 mining employee Isaac Garcia was killed, caught between two rail cars carrying ore. While human error doubtlessly played a part, the Mine Safety and Health Administration placed some blame on “management’s failure to ensure that established safe procedures were followed while Garcia worked between ore cars…. Additionally, the braking systems on the locomotive were not maintained in functional condition.”

While Chevron cleans up the site, the scars on the earth and the poisons in the water remain. By one estimate, this effort could cost up to $1 billion. Meanwhile, many out-of-work miners are still looking for jobs, though union rep David Trujillo said Chevron seemed to be doing the best it could, under the circumstances, to help out.

I knew only a little of this story as I passed the abandoned mine on my way around the Enchanted Circle. But I had a feeling that the mine was not a source of environmental good, even as it provided jobs and the company made contributions to local charities. Now, Chevron will move on. The pollution, at least for a time, will remain. And New Mexicans will continue to debate how to balance the economic good the extraction industries provide while trying to mitigate their environmental impact. At least I hope they will. Unfortunately, the prospect of four more years of a pro-business, anti-environment governor who feeds at the trough of the Koch brothers might color the debate.