Harassment and sexual assault at scientific stations in Antarctica

The howling winds and perpetual darkness of the Antarctic winter were turning to icy spring when McMurdo Station mechanic Liz Monahon grabbed a hammer.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
26 August 2023 Saturday 16:22
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Harassment and sexual assault at scientific stations in Antarctica

The howling winds and perpetual darkness of the Antarctic winter were turning to icy spring when McMurdo Station mechanic Liz Monahon grabbed a hammer. If those in charge of her weren't going to protect her from the man who feared she would kill her, she thought, she needed to protect herself. It wasn't like she could escape. They were all trapped together in the ice. So she carried the hammer with her at all times, whether it was inside her Carhartt jumpsuit or inside her sports bra. "If she got close to me, she was going to start hitting him," Monahon says. "I decided that she was going to survive."

Monahon, 35, is one of many women who say the isolated environment and macho culture at the US research center in Antarctica have allowed sexual harassment and assault to flourish.

The National Science Foundation, the federal agency that oversees the US Antarctic Program, released a report in 2022 in which 59% of women said they had experienced harassment or assault while on the ice, and 72 % of women said such behavior was a problem. in Antarctica.

But the problem has continued. The investigation carried out by the news agency The Associated Press (AP) in judicial records, internal communications, and in interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees of the scientific bases of Antarctica, reveals that complaints of harassment or assault of women at such bases A pattern of denial by those responsible said their employers downplayed their reports of harassment or assault, often putting them or others in more dangerous situations.

In one case, a woman who reported that a colleague had groped her was forced to work alongside him again. In another, a woman who told her employer that she had been sexually assaulted was later fired. Another woman said base bosses downgraded her accusations of rape to harassment. (The AP generally does not identify those who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they publicly identify themselves.)

The allegations of violence did not end with the NSF report. Five months after her release, a woman in McMurdo told a deputy federal sheriff that her colleague Stephen Bieneman pinned her down and put a pimple on her throat for about a minute as she desperately tried to communicate that she couldn't. breathe.

Bieneman pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor assault. He was fired and sent back to the United States, court documents show, and his trial is scheduled for November. His attorney, Birney Bervar, said in an email to the AP that it was "horse play" initiated by the woman and that the evidence did not support "an assault of the nature and degree that she described."

The NSF report triggered a congressional investigation. In a written response to Congress that contradicts its own emails, Leidos, the prime contractor, said he received "zero allegations" of sexual assault in Antarctica for the five years ending April 2022.

Kathleen Naeher, director of operations for the civilian agency group in Leidos, told a congressional committee in December that they would install peepholes on bedroom doors, limit access to master keys that could open multiple bedrooms, and give teams in the field an additional satellite phone.

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said he was stunned by the proposed solutions. "This should have been done before sending someone to Antarctica," he told the audience. Monahon and all but one of the workers quoted in this story are speaking publicly for the first time.

Trapped in one of the most remote places on Earth, the women say they were largely left to fend for themselves. "No one was there to save me except me," says Liz Monahon. “And that was the scariest thing.” Monahon believes that she escaped physical harm in Antarctica only thanks to her colleagues, not her direction.

Mechanic Liz Monahon met Zak Buckingham in 2021 at a hotel in Christchurch, New Zealand, where McMurdo workers were quarantining against COVID-19 before going to Antarctica. It would be Monahon's second stay in Antarctica, a place that had fascinated her since her childhood, on the other side of the world, in upstate New York. At the hotel, Monahon says, male colleagues teased her and a friend interceded when Buckingham, a plumber and amateur boxer from Auckland, New Zealand, sat down with them. Buckingham, now 36, was intimidating and a bit wild, but funny and charming. One night, Monahon says, she and Buckingham got together. What Monahon did not know was that Buckingham had a history of what a judge described as alcohol-related criminal offenses in New Zealand. Three months before his deployment, Buckingham violated a protection order issued by his former partner and the mother of his three children, according to court records obtained by the AP after petitioning a New Zealand judge. She had sent her ex-partner a text message demanding oral sex. She told him to stop being inappropriate. “No, I won't stop being inappropriate,” she replied. Court records show she sent him 18 more offensive text messages that the judge deemed harassment.

Antarctica's ancient ice sheet and its remoteness make it ideal for scientists to study everything from the earliest moments of the universe to changes in the planet's climate. The population of McMurdo, the center of US operations, typically increases from 200 to 300 in the southern winter to over 1,000 in the summer. Normally around 70% are men. Funded and overseen by the NSF, the US Antarctic Program is run by a web of contractors and subcontractors, with billions of dollars at stake.

Since 2017, Leidos owns the main contract, which is now worth more than $200 million a year. Subcontractor PAE, which employs many of the base's workers, was bought last year by government services giant Amentum. There is no police presence or jail in McMurdo, and law enforcement falls to a sworn-in deputy sheriff.

Buckingham was hired by PAE. Amentum did not respond to questions from the AP. Leidos Senior Vice President Melissa Lee Duenas said she performs background checks on all of her employees. "Our stance on sexual harassment or assault could not be clearer: we have zero tolerance for such behavior." Dueñas said in an email. "Each case is thoroughly investigated."

The NSF and Leidos declined to answer questions about Buckingham or other cases. Leidos said sharing specific details wasn't always appropriate or helpful. The NSF told the AP that it improved security in Antarctica last year. The agency now requires Leidos to immediately report any significant health and safety incidents, including assaults and sexual harassment, it said in a statement. The NSF said it has also created an office to handle such complaints, provided a confidential victim advocate and established a 24-hour helpline.

On the ice, with limited options for socializing, many head to one of McMurdo's two main bars: Southern Exposure or Gallagher's. Neither have windows, workers say, and they smell of body odor and decades of stale beer that has seeped into the floor. In summer, when the sun shines all night, people come out of the bars and are dazzled by the light.

One night at Southern Exposure, Monahon told the AP, Buckingham started laughing with her friends about who would sleep with her and her friend. The next thing she did was come face to face with another man, she says. Buckingham, reached by phone in New Zealand, declined to comment and hung up. Monahon says that she repeatedly told Buckingham that she did not want to talk to him. Soon after, she heard that Buckingham was angry with her. Concerned, she says, she told PAE human resources that she feared for her safety.

They took no action. A week later, Buckingham ran up to her at Gallagher's, shaking with rage, yelling and threatening her, he says. “You've been telling shit about my mother,” he yelled at her, she says, leaving her stunned. "People who talk shit about my mom deserve to die." Monahon says she was shocked to the core. “Snitches will get points,” she says, Buckingham growled threateningly when others intervened.

Cameron Dailey-Ruddy, a waiter at Gallagher's, witnessed the commotion. He ordered everyone but Monahon to leave and called 911, which connects to the fire station. From the dispatcher, Dailey-Ruddy got the numbers of the Leidos station manager and the PAE HR representative and asked them to come to the bar. “It was kind of an open secret at the time that this guy had been stalking her,” Dailey-Ruddy said. He added that Buckingham was in bars most nights, sometimes drinking in public areas and harassing women. Monahon says the managers took her to a secret room and told her she could miss work the next day. It was the last time she would feel supported by management.

After a night in his new room, Monahon met with PAE's human resources representative, Michelle Izzi. Monahon claims that Izzi discouraged her from reporting what happened to the deputy US sheriff, in part because it would create jurisdictional headaches and even an international issue, since Buckingham was a New Zealand citizen. Monahon also says that Izzi told her that she needed to carefully consider how the filing of charges could affect her personally and affect the entire United States Antarctic Program. In a subsequent recorded meeting, Izzi denied discouraging Monahon, saying that she had, in fact, ordered him to call the marshal. Izzi did not respond to AP requests for comment.

The next night, Dailey-Ruddy says, Buckingham was back at the bar. The next night, according to another person familiar with the situation, Buckingham got into a physical altercation with another man. Dailey-Ruddy was not surprised by the lack of action against Buckingham. “It seemed like a normal thing in terms of the culture, sexual harassment, and how the safety of women was being addressed at the station,” she says. Meanwhile, Monahon had taken the machinist's hammer to defend himself against her. In a statement to PAE's human resources department, she wrote: "Zak Buckingham is a danger to me. He has threatened my life. He is capable of hurting me and he wants to hurt me. … I have been living in fear for the last two days.”

With his employers doing nothing to address his concerns, Monahon's immediate boss and his coworkers came up with their own plan, according to two employees familiar with the situation. Monahon was told to pack his bags, and the next morning he joined a party attempting to navigate a safe route through sea ice for eight days to resupply a small American outpost. The crossing is risky because the ice can crumble in spring.

“To protect her, they put her in a dangerous situation,” said Wes Thurmann, a fire department supervisor who had worked in Antarctica every year since 2012. But everyone felt it was safer for her to remain in McMurdo. Thurmann, who was also notified when Dailey-Ruddy called 911, says she was introduced to McMurdo's misogynist culture when a group of men rattled off a list of women they considered sexual targets. Often, Thurmann says, the NSF and Antarctic contractors blamed such behavior on alcohol. But the bosses wouldn't ban alcohol, he says, because it would make the displays less attractive.

The Monahon crisis on the ice was not an anomaly. In November 2019, another incident involving a food industry worker forced the NSF to launch its investigation. The food worker did not respond to a request for comment, but her case is described in internal emails obtained by AP. The woman told her bosses that a co-worker of hers had sexually assaulted her. Subsequently, her performance was criticized by a supervisor, who was also the defendant's girlfriend. Two months later, she was fired from her. Many of the woman's colleagues were outraged.

Julie Grundberg, then McMurdo's area manager for Leidos, repeatedly emailed her concerns to her superiors in Denver. “The fact that we haven't made some sort of public statement makes the community trust our organization even less,” Grundberg wrote. Supervisor Ethan Norris responded: "We need your help to remain calm and be a neutral party as you only have one side of the story at this time." Norris did not respond to an AP request for comment.

The case led some of the women to form their own support group, Ice Allies. More than 300 people signed a petition calling for better systems to handle sexual assault. The food chief has settled a wrongful termination claim for an undisclosed amount, people familiar with the situation told the AP. Leidos subsequently fired Grundberg, in a move many workers believe was retaliatory.

Another food hostess, Jennifer Sorensen, told the AP that she was raped in McMurdo in 2015. At first, she didn't tell anyone. “At the station, I had no advocate to speak up for my needs and protection, no jail to protect me from my rapist, and no knowledge of any law enforcement personnel present,” Sorensen said in a written account to the AP. 21 months later, still in torment, Sorensen wrote to the man's employer, GHG Corp., about what happened. GHG later responded that it had investigated their claims with Leidos and would not hire the man again. "We have concluded that you were the victim of sexual harassment," wrote GHG President Joseph Willhelm. Sorensen says it was embarrassing that GHG and Leidos downgraded what she says was rape to harassment. GHG did not respond to a request for comment. Sorensen also contacted the FBI, which did not press criminal charges and declined to release details of its investigation to the AP. Britt Barquist, who worked as a fuel department foreman, told the AP that she was attending a safety briefing with her coworkers in 2017 when a man in a senior position reached under the table and squeezed her. the upper part of the leg. "It was a lingering hand on the inside of my thigh, as close as you can get to grabbing my crotch," says Barquist.

His boss at the time, Chad Goodale, told the AP that he saw what happened and called his supervisor. He said the result was that the man was removed from a joint project and told to avoid contact with Barquist. However, upon returning to Antarctica in 2021, Barquist says, she was forced to work with the man again. “It was humiliating. And horrible,” she says. “She would try not to make eye contact with him or acknowledge him at all. … Toward the end, he was talking to me about things and I just felt like throwing up.” When Barquist returned to Antarctica last year, she took a job as a cook, working with her husband at a small satellite camp instead of at McMurdo. "I just wish I had been more protected," she says.

Shortly before Monahon returned from his expedition, Buckingham was put on a plane for an early return home. The woman who normally takes people to the airfield refused to transport him. "With my supervisor, we just decided that he's not safe and station management can kick him out themselves," says Rebecca Henderson. Izzi, PAE's human resources representative, summoned Monahon to a meeting. Izzi's superior, Holly Newman, was on the phone in Denver. Monahon recorded the conversation. “The investigation has been completed. We took the appropriate measures," Newman says in the recording. She doesn't specify what action was taken, other than to say the person was no longer on the ice. She adds that sometimes they receive reports that are not true. She could not reach Newman for comment. In the recording, Newman then says that problems with alcohol and people "hurting other people" have been going on in Antarctica since "long before" her first visit in 2015. "Why does it happen? Why doesn't he stop? Newman asks. "Those are important questions and I still don't have any satisfactory answers."

In March 2022, Buckingham was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and 10 months of supervision after pleading guilty to two counts of violating a protection order for his former partner. “This is…the first time you have appeared in court for a crime of this nature,” Judge Kevin Glubb concluded. “It has to be the last one, Mr. Buckingham, do you understand? If you come back, all bets are off."

Buckingham never faced any legal action or consequences for what Monahon said happened in Antarctica. She now lives in New Zealand. Monahon hopes his story will spur contractors in Antarctica to take more responsibility. And he wants the NSF to do more than potentially replace Leidos as prime contractor when his contract expires in 2025. "What are they going to do to make sure the next contractor doesn't do the same thing?" ask. Monahon was determined to continue working in Antarctica and she returned in 2022, but she decided to skip this season. "It's that mentality of not letting them win," she says. "But I do think they are winning right now."