This chapter addresses the following terms of reference:
(a) the extent of contamination in and around Defence bases, including water, soil, other natural assets and built structures; and
(f) remediation works at the bases.
The chapter includes:
a discussion of the overall extent of PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases, including the investigation process followed by the Department of Defence (Defence) and the methods it uses to assess and monitor the extent of contamination at each site;
a discussion of evidence received by the Committee in relation to contamination in and around specific Defence bases, particularly those at Oakey, Williamtown and Katherine;
a brief overview of evidence received about contamination at other sites;
an overview of remediation works undertaken to date in and around Defence bases; and
the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations.
Extent of contamination
The National Toxics Network summarised the challenge posed by PFAS as follows:
PFAS chemicals cannot and do not break down. They have no environmental degradation mechanisms (eg hydrolysis, photolysis, or biodegradation). PFAS accumulate in the environment and in all living things, including humans. PFAS can damage the endocrine and reproductive system and the immune system of humans and wildlife. While, the focus has been primarily on PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS, these represent only three of the estimated 4,730 PFAS chemicals in use today. Information on toxic effects and environmental fate exists for only a handful. With the ability of all PFAS to travel via air and water, essentially contaminating the commons, urgent national and international action is warranted and well overdue.
The Coalition Against PFAS informed the Committee that Defence had used 3M Lightwater—a firefighting foam containing PFOS, PFHxS and (to a lesser degree) PFOA—since the 1970s. In 2000, the United States Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the Australian Government to draw attention the long term risks of PFOS to human health and the environment. However, existing stocks of the product continued to be used by Defence until at least 2011. The Coalition Against PFAS considered that this usage had been ‘disastrous in the long term’, with contamination plumes modelled to remain present for 100 years or more, in some cases, and high blood serum levels in affected communities including Oakey, Williamtown and Katherine.
Defence investigation and management
At a public hearing, Defence advised that it had stopped acquiring foam containing PFOS and PFOA (3M Lightwater) from 2004, and phased out its use in preference for an alternative fluorinated foam (Ansulite). Defence also said it had changed its training practices to mainly use water, and noted that when foam was used for training it was collected and taken to a license water treatment facility. While noting it had conducted audits to ensure its remaining stocks of 3M Lightwater were disposed of, Defence could not confirm that it did not hold any more of the product in small amounts.
The Australian Government described the Department of Defence’s PFAS Investigation and Management Program as ‘possibly the largest program of environmental investigations ever conducted in Australia’. At the time of the Government’s submission, the total combined size of the investigation areas was approximately 1150 square kilometres, and Defence had spent in excess of $130 million on the program.
Investigation areas consist of the relevant Defence property, and its vicinity where relevant, in which detailed environmental investigations, including a sampling program, are carried out to assess the location and extent of PFAS contamination. Investigation areas are intended to encompass the plume of PFAS contamination, and an additional buffer area to allow for changes in PFAS migration pathways.
The process for the Government’s assessment of site contamination includes three phases:
Phase 1 – Preliminary Site Investigation – undertaken to determine the presence or absence of PFAS. In cases where PFAS is identified, it provides a baseline understanding of source areas, migration pathways and hydrogeology of the area. It includes a review of previous site reports, an inspection of the site, limited sampling (if any) and an examination of past fire-fighting foam use and storage practices. The results of the Preliminary Site Investigation determine whether the investigation should progress to the next phase.
Phase 2 – Detailed Site Investigation (DSI) – may include extensive sampling, analysis and interpretation of soil, water, plants, animals and other environmental media which may be impacted by PFAS contamination. A Detailed Site Investigation identifies and confirms the areas where legacy AFFF was used (source areas) and how far, and where, it has spread in the environment (migration pathways). The type and quantity of sampling is different for each environmental investigation and is determined by several factors, including the hydrogeology of the investigation area. All Detailed Site Investigations are undertaken by independent environmental consultants and collected samples are sent to laboratories accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities for testing and analysis, including the Commonwealth’s National Measurement Institute, a division of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.
Phase 3 – Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) and/or Ecological Risk Assessment (ERA) – conducted if required following the Detailed Site Investigation. If the results of the Detailed Site Investigation reveal that humans and/or animals in the food chain have the potential to be exposed to the contamination, an assessment will be undertaken into the risk of PFAS contamination to human health, through a Human Health Risk Assessment. An Ecological Risk Assessment may be conducted if the Detailed Site Investigation identifies that sensitive ecological receptors, such as marine life, plants or animals may be affected.
At the conclusion of each investigation, Defence will use the findings to develop a PFAS Management Area Plan (PMAP) that addresses the elevated risks identified in the detailed investigation and the risk assessment. PMAPs are currently under development for some sites where the investigation phase has concluded. Further, in some circumstances, response actions may be conducted simultaneously with the investigations to reduce the risk of impacts on human health, communities and/or the environment.
Defence properties under investigation
At the time the Committee’s inquiry commenced, the Department of Defence was conducting—or had finished conducting—detailed site investigations for PFAS contamination in and around 23 properties. During the inquiry, the Committee was advised that investigations were commencing at a further three properties. These 26 properties, and the current status of their investigations, are summarised in the below table. Defence publishes information and publications relating to each investigation area on its website.
Table 2.1: Status of investigation of Defence properties
RAAF Base Williamtown
Commenced Sep 2015; multiple DSI reports; HHRA Dec 2017; ERA in progress
Commenced May 2016; DSI Nov 2017; HHRA Jun 2018; ERA in progress
RAAF Base Richmond
Commenced May 2017; DSI Jun 2018; HHRA and ERA in progress
RAAF Base Wagga
Commenced May 2017; DSI Jun 2018; HHRA and ERA in progress
Commenced Jun 2017; DSI in progress
Singleton Military Area
Commenced Jul 2018, DSI in progress
Blamey Barracks (Kapooka)
Commenced 2017, DSI in progress
RAAF Base East Sale
Commenced May 2016; DSI Jun 2017; HHRA/ERA Aug 2018, PMAP Aug 2018
Commenced May 2017; DSI in progress; HHRA and ERA not required
Bandiana Military Area
Commenced Jun 2017, DSI Sep 2018, HHRA and ERA in progress
RAAF Williams (Laverton)
Commenced 2017, DSI in progress
Army Aviation Centre Oakey
Commenced Dec 2012; multiple DSI reports; HHRA Dec 2017; ERA in progress
RAAF Base Townsville
Commenced Mar 2017; DSI May 2018, HHRA and ERA in progress
RAAF Base Amberley
Commenced Mar 2017; DSI, HHRA and ERA in progress
Commenced Oct 2017, DSI in progress
RAAF Base Pearce
Commenced Apr 2016; DSI Jul 2018,
HHRA Jul 2018, ERA in progress
Commenced May 2017, DSI May 2018, ERA in progress, HHRA not required
RAAF Base Learmonth
Commenced Sep 2017, DSI in progress
Harold E Holt Area A
Commenced Sep 2017, DSI in progress
Harold E Holt Area B
Commenced Sep 2017, DSI in progress
Gingin Satellite Airfield
Commenced Oct 2017, DSI Jul 2018
RAAF Base Edinburgh
Commenced Nov 2016, DSI, HHRA and ERA in progress
Jervis Bay Range Facility
Commenced Jan 2017, DSI, HHRA and ERA in progress
RAAF Base Tindal
Commenced Mar 2017, DSI Feb 2018 and Sep 2018, HHRA Jun 2018, ERA in progress
RAAF Base Darwin
Commenced Mar 2017, DSI Feb 2018, HHRA Jun 2018, ERA in progress
Commenced Jun 2017, DSI Jun 2018, HHRA/ERA Aug 2018
Source: Australian Government, Submission 64, p. 32; www.defence.gov.au/environment/pfas/
The Australian Government advised that the investigations of some sites—including RAAF Base Williamtown and the Army Aviation Centre Oakey—were reaching completion and were transitioning to the PFAS Management Area Plan as part of the ‘Response Management Phase’. Other sites were comparatively early in the process.
The Government also noted that while its dataset was ‘not yet complete’, Defence had ‘required significantly condensed timeframes for investigations compared with standard industry practice’. It added:
When Defence commenced its National PFAS Investigation Program, testing capabilities were initially limited, and industry’s level of understanding of PFAS chemicals was still developing. As the program has progressed, testing and analysis capabilities for PFAS continue to improve.
Assessing and monitoring the extent of contamination at each site
The Australian Government explained that due to the ‘highly mobile’ nature of PFAS, water is the primary method of PFAS contamination transferring from a source to a receptor, such as a person, animal, plant, eco-system, property or a water body. As such, in addition to soil or water samples at particular locations, it is necessary for the investigations to understand the characteristics of soil and rock formations and the distribution and movement of groundwater.
On average, between 500 and 2000 samples are taken during the investigation of an area, depending on the complexity of the investigation. Where samples exceed the applicable screening criteria for the intended land use, or for drinking water, then the sample may be described as contaminated.
The Australian Government noted that the results of sampling often released a ‘patchwork of varying levels of contamination’. It summarised the typical results of investigations as follows:
Investigations have revealed the principal sources of PFAS contamination at or in the vicinity of Defence properties are former and current Fire Training Areas, former and current fire stations, aircraft hangars, incident sites where AFFF was deployed, and AFFF storage/decanting facilities. Groundwater, surface water, and stormwater/drainage and sewerage systems have been identified as potential pathways for PFAS contamination, through which PFAS can move from a source area to a receptor.
The Victorian Government noted that any site where there have been regular fire-fighting exercises is likely to have some level of PFAS contamination:
As far as the Victorian Government is aware, all [Department of Defence] sites have undertaken regular fire-fighting activity and therefore all of these sites will have some degree of contamination. However, the extent to which PFAS has migrated from Commonwealth land into surrounding land depends on individual factors, including the concentration of contaminants, their proximity to water tables and the local geology and hydrology.
A number of submitters to the inquiry expressed a desire for further environmental monitoring of PFAS levels in affected areas, and for the results of this monitoring to be made publicly available in a timely manner.
The New South Wales Government recommended that Defence publish ongoing monitoring reports and provide a website that includes ‘site by site monitoring data in an accessible format for community members’.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians supported the monitoring of drinking water, soil and food around sites where PFAS contamination is a concern, noting that this can assist with risk communication for concerned communities, as well as assisting population risk assessments and compliance with environmental guidelines and standards.
At a public hearing in Williamtown, Defence advised that while it published all the products of its investigations on its website, including summaries to make the information ‘digestible’, it did not publish the specific readings taken during testing on private properties for privacy reasons.
Defence also advised that one of the changes it had made in its investigation methodology since 2015 is that, rather than starting investigations at the source of the contamination (i.e. on the base) and gradually working its way out, the ‘first thing’ it would do is to ‘go and look outside a Defence property where we thought there might be contamination and just see what’s there, if there’s anything there’.
Extent of contamination around specific bases
The majority of submissions received by the Committee referred to one or more of the following three investigation areas:
Army Aviation Centre Oakey (Queensland);
RAAF Base Williamtown (New South Wales); or
RAAF Base Tindal (Northern Territory).
Army Aviation Centre Oakey
In its May 2016 report, the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee summarised the history of use of PFAS firefighting foams at the Army Aviation Centre Oakey and provided a timeline of how the contamination was investigated. It noted that an estimated 1.2 megalitres of PFAS-containing concentrate had been discharged at the base between 1977 and 2003, largely in firefighting drills, resulting in a contaminated area of approximately 24 square kilometres. Initial investigations in 2010, followed by more comprehensive investigations in 2011, identified the presence of PFOS and PFOA in soil and groundwater at the base. Following an initial community information session in December 2012, and limited targeted sampling during 2013, wider scale testing outside the base to determine the extent of the impact occurred from early 2014. In July 2014, Defence publicly advised Toowoomba Regional Council and affected residents to, as a precaution, not drink water from any underground source in the investigation area until further notice.
According to the Department of Defence website, Defence is currently in the process of finalising the detailed environmental investigation into PFAS on, and in the vicinity of, Army Aviation Centre Oakey, and the outcomes of the investigation are being used to develop a PFAS Management Area Plan. A Human Health Risk Assessment report and an Environmental Site Assessment report were published by Defence in December 2017.
Oakey Management Area is divided into Management Zones 1, 2 and 3. A map of the management area is provided in Figure 2.1 below.
Figure 2.1: Map of Army Aviation Centre Oakey Management Area
Source: Department of Defence
Residents within Management areas 1 and 2 are advised to avoid drinking, using in cooking or unintentionally ingesting groundwater, and to avoid eating home grown leafy green vegetables, eggs from backyard poultry, red meat from home grown cattle or sheep, or fish from Oakey Creek. Residents in Management Zone 1 are additionally advised to avoid drinking home grown milk. Residents in Management Zone 3 are advised to avoid drinking groundwater or using it in cooking, and to avoid eating fish from Oakey Creek.
At the Oakey public hearing, Toowoomba Regional Council explained to the Committee how the detection of elevated PFAS levels in the groundwater had impacted the town’s drinking water supply. Oakey’s water had been drawn from nearby bore fields until 1997, at which time a Toowoomba-Oakey pipeline was commissioned (at Defence expense) to improve water quality. The Oakey bore field was then recommissioned in 2008 with the construction of a reverse osmosis water treatment plant, intended to provide more water security to the town. The new plant was temporarily taken offline in 2012 for unrelated operational reasons, but has not been able to placed back online since due to the PFAS contamination of the groundwater. Recent testing found that, despite some remediation work having been done, the levels of contamination in the bores were ‘very similar to what they were a year earlier’.
At the public hearing, Defence told the Committee that, following the initial focus on breaking exposure pathways by providing clean drinking water for people otherwise reliant on groundwater, it was now moving into the longer-term phase of the response:
We’re here for the long haul. We very much see ourselves as part of this community. The base has been here for a long time and will be here for a long time. We’re moving into remediation activities now. The investigation is essentially complete. We’re working on management plans, long-term plans for how we continue to monitor what’s happening in the ground and in the surface waters and the decontamination process that we’ve commenced with water treatment on the base.
Defence added that the monitoring wells it had put in place during the investigation would remain in place and continue to be retested into the future. The department elaborated:
Part of the ongoing monitoring plan that we’re now entering into will include developing a further improved view of the aquifer. We’ve built the model over time as we’ve collected samples and understood the aquifer, how the water circulates, the recharge rates and the PFAS levels and speed of movement. As we continue to develop the ongoing monitoring plan and implement it, the model of the aquifer gets more improved and more refined, particularly in terms of the underground geology and how that might be impacting on water flows.
Residents of Oakey expressed concern to the Committee that there was only limited information released by Defence in relation to the testing of private and government-owned bores, and that private bores appeared to be no longer being tested. However, they referred to evidence that the plume of PFAS contamination was ‘getting heavier’ and moving to the west-south-west, as predicted.
Mr Craig Commens, while expressing concern about the possible health effects of PFAS exposure and the impact on property prices, submitted to the Committee that ‘hysteria’ associated with the PFAS contamination, particularly in certain media outlets, had ‘caused Oakey way more problems than the contamination’. At the public hearing, Mr Commens said that he and some other residents had organised an ‘Oakey Fights Back’ rally in response to the negative media.
RAAF Base Williamtown
The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee presented timeline of events regarding how the extent of PFAS contamination at RAAF Base Williamtown became known in its February 2016 report. This included initial detections by Defence of PFOS and PFOA on the base in December 2011, and elevated levels being detected in surface water leaving the base in March 2012. While several local authorities, including the New South Wales Environment Protection Agency (EPA), the Port Stephens Council and Hunter Water were notified of the off-site detections as early as May 2012, the contamination and recommended precautionary measures were not publicly announced until 3 September 2015.
According to the Department of Defence website, Defence is currently in the process of finalising the detailed environmental investigation into PFAS on, and in the vicinity of, RAAF Base Williamtown, and the outcomes of the investigation are being used to develop a PFAS Management Area Plan. An Off-Site Human Health Risk Assessment report and an Environmental Site Assessment report were published by Defence in December 2017.
The Williamtown Management Area is divided into Primary, Secondary and Broader Management Zones. A map of the management area, published by the New South Wales EPA, is provided in Figure 2.2 below.
The Coalition Against PFAS noted that the main plume of PFAS contamination emanating from RAAF Base Williamtown is approximately five kilometres long and five kilometres wide. It added that the plumes ‘continue to migrate daily, and are exacerbated by flood events’. In addition to concerns about human health, the group noted that the PFAS contamination had spread into the Hunter Estuary Wetlands, which are internationally protected under the Ramsar Convention.
According to the New South Wales Government, the contamination emanating from RAAF Base Williamtown has impacted a community of 600 residents. The New South Wales EPA recommends that residents within the area follow precautionary advice to minimise their exposure to PFAS chemicals. The advice varies according to each management zone.
Residents in the Secondary and Broader Management Zones are advised to not use bore water, groundwater or surface water for drinking or cooking, and to avoid swallowing such water when bathing, showering, swimming and paddling. They are advised to avoid eating home grown food produced in the area, including slaughtered meat, eggs, milk, poultry, fruit and vegetables.
Residents in the Primary Management Zone are advised that groundwater, bore water and surface water should not be used for any purpose, and to not do anything with such water that may lead to incidental swallowing. They are advised that home grown food produced in the area should not be consumed.
Figure 2.2: Map of RAAF Base Williamtown Management Area
Source: New South Wales EPA
Port Stephens Council submitted that it was ‘difficult to understand’ the extent of contamination due to ‘results not being communicated in a consistent manner’. It also noted that there was no clear guidance at the start of the investigation as to what constituted contamination, and the related health effects.
The Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group submitted that the nature of the local environment around Williamtown, Salt Ash and Fullerton Cove is ‘unique’:
It is all located on top of the once pristine Tomago Sandbed aquifer. The area includes ground water dependent eco systems, a high water table and a high dependency by residents o[n] their bore water supply due to the sandy soils. The area has a documented drain network that has constant interplay with the ground water. This unique setting has provided a platform for the contamination disaster. … These plumes have created pathways of exposure to both families and livestock, via water, air, soil and dust.
Several submitters told the Committee about the distress that community members had suffered when an expansion to the initial investigation zone was announced in late 2017, taking in significantly more properties that had not previously been given precautionary advice in relation to, for example, consumption of home grown produce.
Justin Hamilton, a community representative living in the Williamtown area, told the Committee that the extent of contamination had still not been defined. He said that Defence had refused requests to conduct soil, drain, air and blood sampling, in addition to water sampling, and cited examples of incorrect information being promulgated that would have benefited from the assistance of the local community. At a public hearing, Mr Hamilton told the Committee that he had paid for his own testing of water tanks, bores, and the creek and dam on his property that were outside of the original zone in order to prove that the zone was wrong.
Mr Hamilton and fellow resident Lindsay Clout explained to the Committee that there were ‘hundreds of kilometres’ of interconnected drains on private property that overflow onto properties around Fullerton Cove during rain events that occur at high tide. This results in the contamination spreading across the area and rendering the zones within the management area ‘irrelevant’.
Eileen Clark, of nearby Medowie, expressed concern that PFAS may have contaminated the Tomago Sandbeds, which are an ‘integral part’ of the region’s water supply. She called for a new dam to be built to reduce reliance on the Sandbeds.
The O’Connell family, long term residents of the area, explained that an expansion to RAAF Base Williamtown in the 1980s had caused stormwater from the base to flow into Moor’s Drain, to the east of the base. A new drain and levee system was constructed following a flood event in 1990, which was subsequently modified by the Port Stephens Council to prevent flooding of new subdivisions. The O’Connell family claimed that this action had resulted in PFAS contaminated floodwater being trapped on properties along Nelson Bay Road ‘for months on end with nowhere to go’, and that Defence had been using these properties as an ‘off base retention pond for their PFAS contaminated stormwater runoff for 28 years’.
Kim-leeanne King wrote to the Committee about how, as children, she had run through bore-water sprinklers at the RAAF base, played in the water in the drains, and enjoyed home grown vegetables watered with bore water. She described an occasion on which RAAF personnel had conducted a demonstration at the Williamtown Public School of using fire fighting foam to extinguish a fire. After the demonstration, children picked up handfuls of excess foam and placed it on their hands and faces. Ms King explained that she had and family had since been ‘plagued by health issues’, despite never having drunk or smoked.
Robert Goldsack, who was based at RAAF Base Williamtown from approximately 1980 to 1985, wrote that he was ‘routinely covered in AFFF foams used by the ADF’ during firefighting training exercises and drills. He also claimed that he had seen firefighting crews discarding waste foam material from their tankers into the bush and creeks on the western side of the base. Mr Goldsack noted that he had been chronically sick since his discharge from the RAAF in March 1986, suffering from heart problems and trouble healing from any operation or injury.
RAAF Base Tindal, Katherine
Elevated levels of PFAS were detected in offsite surface water and groundwater near RAAF Base Tindal as part of a Defence preliminary sampling program that reported in September 2016.
In March 2017, Defence commenced a detailed environmental investigation into the presence of PFAS on and in the vicinity of the site. An interim Human Health Risk Assessment Report was released in January 2018, followed by a report on the Detailed Site Investigation in February 2018, and a final Human Health Risk Assessment Report in June 2018.
The Detailed Site Investigation Report noted that firefighting foams containing PFAS were ‘routinely used for fire training activities, hangar and fuel farm fire suppression system operation and testing, incident response and response equipment testing’. The investigation found that a plume of PFAS contaminated groundwater ‘extends across most of the Base and extends off-Base, migrating in a northwesterly direction towards the Township of Katherine’. The RAAF Base Tindal investigation area is divided into five zones based on water use. A map of the investigation area is provided in Figure 2.3 below.
Figure 2.3: Map of RAAF Base Tindal Investigation Area
Source: Department of Defence
The Northern Territory Government submitted that routine monitoring had confirmed the presence of PFAS in the groundwater supply for the town of Katherine in 2017. The potential for these PFAS levels to ‘spike’ above the health based guidance value for drinking water:
… rendered the groundwater supply that provided resilience to Katherine water supply as unusable particularly in times of surface water outages due to seasonal flushing of the Katherine River.
In August 2017, the Northern Territory Government implemented compulsory water conservation measures to reduce demand. The water conservation measures included alternate day irrigation for households, the removal of watering of hard surfaces, and the identification and repair of leaks. This allowed PFAS contaminated groundwater to be temporarily removed from service during the September to November peak demand period. A pilot water treatment plant was installed in October 2017, which is ‘now producing up to 1ML/day of PFAS guideline compliant water from the existing PFAS contaminated groundwater source’.
The Northern Territory Government advised that another, larger (10 megalitres/day), PFAS groundwater treatment plant had been proposed as part of a ‘long term, sustainable and resilient water strategy’ to ‘future proof the supply and provide for the delivery of safe drinking water’. The estimated cost of this treatment plant was $11–13 million, and discussions over funding were being held with Defence. Exploration for a new groundwater source was also progressing north of Katherine.
Nicole Smith, a long term resident of Katherine, noted that RAAF Base Tindal was located directly on top of the Tindal Limestone Aquifer, which had been identified as the ‘main sustainable source of water’ for the town of Katherine. She contended that the extent of contamination in the area ‘was not made clear’ to all residents, stakeholders, emergency services and Indigenous communities as soon as the information was known to authorities. She also noted that the results of initial tests were not communicated to some property owners for up to six months.
Dr Peter Spafford questioned why governments had not begun monitoring for PFAS, particularly in underground water, at the time the RAAF stopped using PFAS-based firefighting foams in 2004. Dr Spafford, a general practitioner who conducts PFAS blood tests for Katherine residents, told the Committee that he had been ‘amazed by the very high levels of PFAS’ in his patients’ blood, in particular PFHxS.
Anthony Bartlett, also a Katherine resident, referred to an environmental management plan produced for Defence in 1987 that stated that waste water containing firefighting foams ‘must be prevented from entering storm water systems, ponds and ground water except in an emergency’. Mr Bartlett submitted that this report ‘highlights the overall evidence that there needed to be caution and measures to contain the AFFF release into the environment’. He also referred to:
a 2002 report which stated that approximately 104 000 litres of waste water containing residual firefighting foams was being released annually into the base’s stormwater drain and the evaporation pond;
a 2005 environmental investigation, and a subsequent 2007 investigation of landfill and burial sites, which documented poor waste disposal practices being undertaken at the base, and
a 2009 investigation that detected PFOS in drinking water sampled from the base.
Mr Bartlett considered that, combined with the detailed site investigation released in 2018, these reports ‘provide damning evidence in the gross negligence in relation to usage and handling of AFFF’s on RAAF Base Tindal’.
In relation to the 1987 report, Defence told the Committee that although the report ‘did advise against discharging the 3M Lightwater product into drainage systems’ for environmental reasons, it had recommended discharge to the sewer as the preferred method of disposal. Defence noted that it was now known that sewage treatment plants were ineffective at removing PFAS, and that other parts of the report had stated that the product was biodegradable, had low toxicity, and its components were ‘not considered to be dangerous substances’.
Defence advised that, following the completion of an ecological risk assessment for the RAAF Base Tindal investigation area, it would continue to monitor the long term wells that had been drilled and installed during the investigation process.
Water conservation measures remain in place in Katherine, and residents are advised limit their intake of fish from the Katherine River. Residents within the investigation area are advised that they:
… may wish to manage their consumption of home-grown produce irrigated with bore water to ensure it is balanced with fruit and vegetables from broader sources to manage potential exposure, particularly for young children.
The Mayor of Katherine, Mrs Fay Miller, described to the Committee how, in 2017, the Katherine public swimming pool was temporarily closed due to the detection of high levels of PFAS:
We were using town water in our pools so we thought that would be perfectly safe. We naturally did testing on that and were absolutely horrified at the reading that came out of there and so we closed the pool…. So we drained it completely and refilled with town water and it was fine.
Mrs Miller explained that it turn out that one of the pool operators was actually filling the pool with bore water, not town water, and that this situation had now been rectified.
Other Defence bases
A number of submissions addressed the extent of contamination, and the status of current investigations, at other Defence bases around Australia.
In addition to RAAF Base Williamtown, discussed above, the New South Wales Government provided information on PFAS contamination at the six other Defence bases:
RAAF Base Wagga – where PFAS contamination from the base has impacted both surface water and groundwater offsite, and impacts a community of approximately 100 residents.
RAAF Base Richmond – where PFAS contamination from the base has impacted both surface water and groundwater offsite, and impacts a community of approximately 50 residents.
HMAS Albatross – where PFAS contamination from the base has impacted both surface water and groundwater offsite, and impacts a community of approximately 50 residents. Contamination from the base has impacted bother the Shoalhaven River and Currambene Creek, which are popular recreational fishing areas. As a result, the New South Wales Government has released precautionary dietary advice for these two waterways.
Holsworthy Army Barracks – where PFAS contamination from the base has impacted both surface water and groundwater offsite, and impacts a community of approximately 100 residents. A detailed site investigation is currently being undertaken by Defence.
Singleton Lone Pine Barracks and Blamey Army Barracks, Kapooka – where investigations into PFAS contamination began in the second half of 2018.
In relation to RAAF Base East Sale, the Victorian Government advised that that an interim human health and ecological risk assessment had been released in December 2017, following completion of a detailed site investigation in June 2017. A comprehensive human health and ecological risk assessment was in the process of being prepared, including additional work to address data gaps. This report, along with a PFAS Management Area Plan for the site was released on 2 August 2018. The Victorian Government added that it was aware of PFAS contamination in the Heart Morass and Dowd Morass wetlands, adjacent to RAAF Base East Sale. As a result, the it advised against consumption of ducks, carp and eel taken from these wetlands.
The Gippsland Lakes, to which the Heart Morass and Dowd Morass wetlands connect, are internationally protected under the Ramsar Convention. The Coalition Against PFAS, noting the ‘alarming levels’ of PFAS detected in duck, eels and fish, submitted:
Since PFAS biomagnify up the food chain, the real extent of the damage caused in these areas seems likely to be far greater that has been revealed by preliminary testing. There is no data on just how many species have been poisoned.
The Wetlands Environmental Taskforce Public Fund (the WET Trust), which was established for the acquisition, rehabilitation and maintenance of Australian wetlands, described the Heart Morass, which it acquired in 2004, as its ‘showcase property’ and a ‘jewel in the crown of Victoria’s wetlands’. However, the WET Trust submitted that, due to PFAS contamination caused by stormwater discharge from RAAF Base East Sale, and the detection of PFAS in duck, eel and carp in the area, the commercial value of the property as an asset on the trust’s balance sheet had reduced to zero.
In relation to RAAF Base Williams (Laverton), the Victorian Government advised that a preliminary site investigation had recently been completed. A detailed site investigation, including more detailed sampling on-base and in the surrounding region, was expect to commence soon.
In relation to HMAS Cerberus and Bandiana Military Area, the Victorian Government advised that preliminary site investigations were underway, and that Defence would prepare and share reports on these investigations with relevant government and regulatory bodies, as well as the community.
The Government of South Australia addressed the investigation of PFAS contamination at RAAF Base Edinburgh in its submission. It noted that while the South Australian EPA had been provided with only limited information on the extent of PFAS contamination around the base, it had received eight formal notifications in relation to identification of PFAS in groundwater located offsite. It was also aware of sediment, surface and soil sampling being undertaken both on and offsite.
A submission from Mr George Bury, a former motor transport fitter who worked at RAAF Base Amberley, submitted that during the 1970s PFAS was ‘used like water as we were told it was no risk to health’. He described how, after servicing, fire vehicles were:
… taken onto the outside grass or in-between the runways to pump foam to check its consistency. The method of checking was to scoop a handful of foam and turn it upside down and check its density and ability to stick to the skin. If a tank had to be drained, it was taken to the fire pit on the eastern side of the base where a cocktail of toxic waste was dumped (including kerosene). The fire pit sat above the edge of a river bank above Warrill Creek and would have overflowed on the dumping of liquids, firefighting practise or rain.
Mr Norman Canton, a long term resident living near RAAF Base Townsville, explained that investigations have confirmed that PFAS has travelled widely from the base, assisted by ‘seasonal pumping of water off base into the nearby lagoon, to keep the runway serviceable during heavy wet season events’. He noted that although the use of PFAS foams in firefighting and training had been superseded, residues were still present in the soil, water and the food chain, as evidenced in samples taken of flora, fish and crustaceans. He described the lack of testing of birds as an ‘important oversight given that birds are the most mobile of any fauna, including humans, and feed off plants and/or species further down the food chain’.
The Bullsbrook Residents and Ratepayers Association told the Committee that PFAS had been found in water from private bores, soil and hen’s eggs on private land around RAAF Base Pearce, and in dolphins downstream in the Swan River. The Association noted the complex hydrology of the area had meant that the future movement of contamination plumes were unpredictable. It also cautioned that not all private bores in West Bullsbrook had been tested, nor had cattle grazing in the investigation area.
Contamination of non-Defence related sites
Although not within the terms of reference for this inquiry, PFAS contamination is known to have occurred in a range of non-Defence related sites.
Associate Professor Robert Niven of the University of New South Wales emphasised the extent of PFAS contamination in his submission, arguing that the problem was ‘highly likely to be far larger than that associated with the Department of Defence’. Associate Professor Niven submitted that soils and groundwaters around the following sites were highly likely to be contaminated:
every airport or airfield, whether national, state or local;
every hydrocarbon fuel refining facility, whether in current operation or which operated in the past;
every port facility for the import or export of hydrocarbon fuels;
every hydrocarbon fuel storage depot;
every hydrocarbon fuel pipeline;
every rail facility for the loading and transport of hydrocarbon fuels, including (quite possibly) all holding yards and rail tracks used for hydrocarbon shipments;
every road tanker fuel loading facility;
every chemical manufacturing plant, especially those involving the storage or handling of flammable liquids;
every chemical storage facility;
every offshore and onshore oil or gas extraction facility;
every firefighting training facility, training ground or similar, whether in regular or irregular use;
every landfill, whether in current operation or now closed, regardless of whether in public or private ownership, or under state or council jurisdiction;
every wastewater treatment plant, regardless of whether in public or private ownership, or under national, state or council jurisdiction;
every location at which a large fuel or chemical fire has occurred in the past half-century.
Wilson Consulting noted that, aside from firefighting foams, ‘significant’ PFAS contamination was also ‘occurring daily’ from wastewater treatment plants, landfill leachate and ‘dust in our own homes’. Wilson attributed this to use of PFAS chemicals in stain repellent treatments for upholstery, carpets, clothing, glossy magazines, cleaning agents, cosmetics, food packaging, and other applications.
At a national level, Airservices Australia is conducting detailed PFAS investigations at a number of airports across Australia as part of its National PFAS Management Program.
Local investigations are also being undertaken by environment protection agencies and fire and rescue services in several states and territories. For example, the New South Wales EPA is leading investigations focused on sites where it is likely that large quantities of PFAS have been used, including certain fire and rescue training facilities, regional airports and industrial sites.
It has been reported that, including Defence sites, there are at least 90 sites around Australia where elevated levels of PFAS are being investigated.
Bathurst Regional Council submitted that it was seeking acknowledgement from the Commonwealth of its role in operating the Bathurst Regional Airport up to and including 1992, and that PFAS were used by or under the direction of Commonwealth agencies until that time.
Dr Geralyn McCarron questioned the limitation of the Committee’s inquiry to ‘in and around Defence bases’, noting that a company had been contracted to dispose of 880 000 litres of PFAS contaminated wastewater from RAAF Base Amberley to be used as ‘feedstock’ in compost. Dr McCarron suggested that, as a result, the contamination was ‘potentially widely distributed in people’s home environments’.
The National Toxics Network noted that while this inquiry focuses on Defence sites, ‘there has been no inquiry into the impacts of PFAS contamination from other important sources, such as airports, wastewater treatment plans and sewerage outfalls’.
Many participants in the inquiry expressed concern about the small scale and slow pace of efforts to provide remediation of contaminated land, particularly off‑base. Participants in Katherine, Williamtown and Oakey also highlighted that there had been no, or limited, progress to date in containing the migration of PFAS emanating from each base.
Mr John Donahoo gave evidence to the Committee that, although costly, it was possible to stop the continued contamination of the Williamtown area. His proposal consisted of three components:
constructing on-site detention ponds capable of storing rain from a one-in-100 years flood,
installing low-head, high-volume submersible pumps that pump water from the detention ponds into the ocean (potentially after being treated), and
containing the pollution with the use of polyethylene sheet piling coupled with bentonite slurry and bentonite clay.
Mr Desmond Maslen similarly referred to a remediation plan that had been discussed with Defence in 2015 for all run-off water from RAAF Base Williamtown to be treated and contained through a ‘zeolite-activated charcoal’ process, but claimed that this was not acted upon due to cost.
At a public hearing in Williamtown, Defence assured the Committee that it ‘will be able to stop the contamination in due course but it will take time’. Defence was not able to provide an approximate timeline. Defence noted, however, that it’s water treatment plants were intercepting and treating water leaving the base, and that it was now examining options for its ‘next step’ to treat and remove contaminant from highly contaminated areas off the base.
The Coalition Against PFAS called for the Government to commit to a ‘proper, comprehensive remediation plan for each affected site’.
The Government of South Australia submitted that it had ‘limited knowledge’ of remediation works, including trials, undertaken at RAAF Base Edinburgh and was ‘unclear on the communication of remediation activities’. It submitted:
Defence’s objectives as it relates to remediation goals, endpoints and long term management of PFAS impacts, including potential offsite disposal of PFAS contaminated material, is currently unknown and is of concern to SA EPA.
The Victorian Government submitted that to date, limited remediation had occurred, but that development PFAS Management Area Plans were in progress for the investigation areas at RAAF Base East Sale, RAAF Base Williams (Laverton), HMAS Cerberus, and Bandiana Military Area.
The New South Wales Government noted that there were frustrations within the community about the ‘slow pace of work’ towards containment and remediation of PFAS contamination, and called for
Defence to establish and maintain meaningful connections to affected communities over the long term, so that the community’s concerns are addressed in an empathetic way; and
affected communities to have access to regular and robust monitoring information that demonstrates the level and extent of PFAS contamination in a simple manner.
The National Toxics Network wrote that the Australian Government had ‘failed to have any PFAS sites remediated or PFAS wastes destroyed’ in the past two decades. It argued that this failure had resulted in ‘offsite dumping’. It cited examples of ‘almost a million litres’ of PFAS- contaminated water being used to make NuGrow compost, and reports of Defence ‘giving away’ out of date foams to ‘unsuspecting firefighters’.
The Government’s approach to date
The Australian Government submitted that the precautionary principle has been ‘key’ to Defence’s approach to the management of PFAS risks, and that its PFAS Response Management Strategy is:
... consistent with the precautionary principle as set out in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, that if there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation. …
While there are significant levels of uncertainty around the behaviours of PFAS and its impacts, there is sufficient knowledge to apply the precautionary principle.
The Government explained that Defence is taking a ‘tiered approach’ to the management of risks identified in detailed environmental investigations, whereby interim response actions are implemented prior to the conclusion of the investigation phase in order to ‘avoid or mitigate a significant risk to human health or the environment’:
Interim Response Actions may include the provision of alternative water supplies to affected residents and communities, the implementation of water treatment technologies, drain maintenance activities, and management of PFAS source areas in accordance with relevant State and Territory regulations.
At the conclusion of the investigation phase for a site, a comprehensive PFAS Management Area Plan (PMAP) may be developed to respond to any elevated risks identified in the DSI report or a HHRA/ERA. The PMAP for each site will be site-specific and may include remediation actions, depending on the characteristics of the site. Several PMAPs are currently under development.
Alternative water supplies
Defence has provided alternative drinking water to properties otherwise reliant on contaminated bores in the areas surrounding the Army Aviation Centre Oakey, and RAAF Bases Williamtown, Tindal and Pearce. The Government explained:
Where possible, eligible residents are connected to reticulated town water, ensuring a long-term supply of safe water. Until the installation of water infrastructure is complete, residents are provided sufficient alternative water (bottled or tank) to meet the domestic requirements of the property.
To date, this has involved Defence:
funding approximately 350 properties to be connected to town water in the area surrounding RAAF Base Williamtown, and paying the annual service fee and usage charges for three years;
connecting 40 properties to town water in the Oakey management area, and paying the annual service fee and usage charges for three years;
providing rainwater tanks to 63 affected properties in the Katherine region, and paying for these tanks to be topped up at Defence expense for a period for three years; and
providing 130 properties surrounding RAAF Base Pearce with bottled water. Any further decisions regarding the provision of a sustainable source of water for these residents will follow after the completion of the Human Health Risk Assessment for that area.
The Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group submitted that an issue had arisen in relation to water connections being laid using poly pipes, through which PFAS chemicals can penetrate. The group said that it was awaiting information on what would be done to with these pipes to ‘make sure that the town water supply is safe from the groundwater contamination’.
Water treatment plants
Water treatment plants are one option available to Defence for managing the risk of groundwater, surface water, and stormwater and drainage systems as potential pathways for PFAS contamination in water supplies. At the time of the Government’s submission, Defence had installed:
three water treatment plants at RAAF Base Williamtown;
one water treatment plant at the Army Aviation Centre Oakey;
one water treatment plant at Katherine to treat bore water to drinking standard as a supplement to the town’s water supply;
water treatment plants to remediate PFAS contaminated water generated from construction or redevelopment projects, including at RAAF Bases Amberley and Williamtown, and Lavarack Barracks.
Defence was also undertaking contract negotiations for additional water treatment plants at RAAF Bases Edinburgh, Tindal and Williamtown; and had released tender documentation concerning the further remediation of Lake Cochran, Williamtown.
At the public hearing in Katherine, Defence advised that it was signing contracts for two more water treatment plants to be placed in a highly contaminated area on RAAF Base Tindal. This was in addition to the existing (1 megalitre) treatment being used to treat bore water to be PFAS-free and mixed into the town water supply. Although the Katherine town water supply was regarded as ‘safe to drink’ due to the level of PFAS being within international standards, several residents of Katherine told the Committee that they continued to buy bottled drinking water at their own expense. Others expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of drawing water from the aquifer, treating it and reinjecting it back into the aquifer, or questioned whether water that was designated ‘safe’ was actually safe for residents with already elevated levels of PFAS in their blood. Defence, however, advised that PFAS was only present in Katherine’s water supply in ‘very, very low amounts … almost at the limit of detection’, and that Power and Water Corporation was doing tests weekly or monthly for PFAS chemicals, with the results published on its website.
In Oakey, Defence advised that it would be installing additional water treatment plants, but noted the practical limitations on what could be achieved:
[O]nce these chemicals are in an aquifer or out and about they become fairly dilute and therefore you have to clean a huge volume of water. … We’re targeting the high-concentration zones because that’s where you get the best value for removing the maximum amount of PFAS from the environment.
… My personal view is that it’s unrealistic to expect that every molecule of PFAS that has been put in the ground can be removed; that is unrealistic. The question is working with the environmental experts and the like and the various environmental protection agencies on how much we should do and how much we need to do, and that’s still an evolving matter.
Lindsay Clout, a resident of Fullerton Cove in the Williamtown investigation area, told the Committee that during a major rain event (which could occur up to three times a year), the water treatment plant at Lake Cochran could not keep up with the inflow and was turned off, ‘allowing untreated contaminated water to leave the base and continue to contaminate our community’. He added that Defence’s action to stop contamination leaving the base through Moor’s Drain—which flows towards communities east of the base—was ‘miniscule’ to date. He noted that the ‘new technology filtration plant’ set up on Moor’s Drain was a ‘demonstration plant that can only treat 1.2 litres per second’ and, even with an intended upgrade, would ‘only deal with one of the three drains discharging water from the base into the [Moor’s] Drain system’.
Mrs Kim Smith characterised water treatment plants as the ‘newest of the stall tactics from Defence’, querying their effectiveness and claiming that they only operated during business hours and did not operate on public holidays or during rain. She also raised concerns about the residue left behind after water has been treated, which she said were being stored in ‘metre-by-metre containers’ on the RAAF Base Williamtown.
At the public hearing in Williamtown, Defence advised that it was treating ‘the majority’ of surface water flowing off the base, but confirmed that some untreated water would flow during heavy rain events. Defence also confirmed that it was storing residue on the base, in the form of granular activated carbon from its original water treatment plant (which had since been replaced with a plant using resin-based technology).
Defence advised that underground water was a ‘much more challenging’ issue than surface water. Based on advice from experts, it had started to ‘remove water from the ground there, treat it, then put it back into the ground’.
Removal of soil source areas
To reduce the migration of PFAS in surface and groundwater, Defence has:
excavated approximately 200mm of sediment from approximately three kilometres of open drains at Williamtown;
removed and disposed of 12 000 cubic metres of contaminated soil at Army Aviation Centre Oakey; and
stockpiled soil associated with construction redevelopment projects.
At the public hearing in Katherine, Defence explained that existing technologies for the treatment of soil were limited:
There is no machine or process you can buy in the world today that can clean soil. We’ve looked, we’ve been to the market, we’ve sought expressions of interest and we’ve got some companies now that we’re starting to do some trials with. There is a range of techniques which involve injecting chemicals into the soil to lock the PFAS in place. We’re very nervous about using techniques like that, unless they’re fully understood. … We’ve got a trial running at one of our bases, which will commence at the end of the year, for a process that has great potential for taking PFAS from soil, but it’s still in the experimental stage. … We talk to defence departments and other players in Europe and America. They look at what we’re doing. They’re doing similar things. We’re trying to use the best knowledge we can to get on top of this in terms of our responsibility to clean this up as best we can. But I wouldn’t want to leave anybody with the impression that it will be a quick and easy process. It will take a while.
In Williamtown, Defence advised that, along with residue from its original water treatment plant, soil that had been removed from drains was being stockpiled in plastic containers on the base due to the lack of an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution for cleansing it of PFAS.
Remediation in other jurisdictions
In its submission, Victoria’s Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board (MFB) described the process it had undertaken to test and decontaminate its firefighting fleet. This included:
testing of the fleet, which identified that the majority of trucks were heavily contaminated with PFAS, due to persistent residues from the previous use of fluorinated firefighting foam concentrates;
a truck decontamination process overseen by two independent environmental consulting firms, resulting in more than 75 per cent of the fleet being decontaminated to below accepted thresholds; and
the cleaning of 4689 lengths of firefighting hose.
MFB noted that it was actively assisting other agencies, including Defence, to ‘either advise or provided similar decontamination processes for their respective firefighting appliances’.
Research into remediation technologies
The Australian Government’s submission noted that there are currently limited proved remediation technologies available in relation to PFAS.
Defence has financially supported research into remediation technology and, as at June 2018, had funded eight research activities valued at approximately $1.7 million, which included a new soil washing technology trial. Since November 2017, Defence has also issued requests for information to the market calling for industry input on technologies for treating PFAS contaminated water and soil.
Separately, the Australian Research Council-administered Special Research Initiative on PFAS provides more than $13 million to:
… support the development of innovative technologies to investigate and remediate PFAS contaminated areas, including soil and other solid contaminated debris, groundwater, waterways and marine systems.
The first round of the initiative was announced in August 2018, with successful research projects including:
$999 082 to researchers at Deakin University to create a waste-to-resource remediation strategy for PFAS contamination, including inexpensive and effective treatment of PFAS-contaminated sites and a mechanism to turn waste products into valuable resources.
$880 187 to researchers at the University of Queensland to develop a self-contained and portable system for the onsite destruction of PFAS at contaminated sites.
$940 000 to researchers at the University of Newcastle to develop new technology to allow for the catalytic destruction of PFAS reactions at elevated temperatures.
$1 103 883 to researchers at The University of New South Wales for a new treatment technology to defluorinate PFAS in contaminated water.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) advised the Committee that its research had targeted knowledge gaps that would ‘assist in the definition of the risk profile of PFAS and for its treatment’, including ‘extensive studies across a range of soil types to quantify how mobile PFAS is in soils and groundwater’. CSIRO noted:
Recent research and development by CSIRO and others has challenged and changed traditional understanding regarding these issues. This understanding underpins the risk profile of PFAS to environmental and human health, and its migration rate and treatability. Developing cost-effective approaches to manage and remediate affected environments will depend on such information.
CSIRO advised that it had conducted research into future treatment and remediation technology options for PFAS, including testing the effectiveness of encapsulation and destructive technologies. CSIRO was also developing predictive models of PFAS behaviours in soils and groundwater, which would allow for ‘an assessment of the longevity of the threat of PFAS, the migration of plumes of PFAS in groundwater and the design of remedial and management efforts’.
At a hearing in Canberra, CSIRO advised that while there had been a ‘lot of focus’ removing PFAS from groundwater, there had been ‘very little’ focus on soil, which was the ‘source term’ for the contamination. CSIRO considered that strategies for immobilising, removing or destroying the source term to prevent contamination of ground water should be a ‘high priority research area’. CSIRO also emphasised the value of coordination mechanisms in order to focus research efforts on the most important areas of science and the knowledge gaps.
Continued use of contaminated bore water
Several residents of Katherine expressed concern that, since there were no restrictions on the use of contaminated bores in the area for irrigation and agriculture, the continued use of bore water was further contaminating soils and adding to exposure pathways. Dr Peter Spafford, for example, submitted:
Contaminated bore water has been used, and continues to be used, for irrigation both on private properties and government/council land (schools, parks, etc.). This has resulted in ground water contamination to be brought back to the surface, spread widely and seeping back into the ground. This therefore contaminates new ground, effectively increases the load of contamination and further increases the likelihood of persistence in the environment. This issue appears to have been overlooked as bore water can still be freely used.
Mrs Fay Miller, Mayor of Katherine, told the Committee that the continued use of bore water for irrigation of public spaces, such as parks and sports fields, had been discussed at length by the Council. However, she noted that the Council had a responsibility to provide ‘good grassed areas for children to play on’, and that the advice was that the contamination was minimal:
You’d probably have to eat the grass and keep eating the grass for a while for it to have any effect on you. What do you do? Let the town go brown and not do anything about it? No. Our responsibility is to provide good reserves and good parks for our town. We have the belief that we are certainly not contaminating our parks.
In Oakey, the Toowoomba Regional Council advised that it was not using bore water for irrigation of parks, showgrounds or other sites controlled by the Council. These sites had been connected to the town’s reticulated water supply. However, the Council was not aware and had not taken any steps to determine whether private residents were using private bores for irrigation. Residents of Oakey, however, confirmed that they had not been told to stop using private bores and that such bores were still being used for irrigation.
At its Canberra hearing, the Department of the Environment and Energy advised that the regulation of bores was ‘a state and territory issue’ in which the Commonwealth had no jurisdictional or regulatory role. The Department also highlighted that the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan provided guidance to jurisdictions in relation to identifying risks of potential contamination and ‘what the potential exposure or draw-out points are, including things like bores and surface water’. However, the Department acknowledged that there was a potential risk in relation to:
… whether the environmental management guidance that has already been given to those jurisdictions has been effectively provided to the water regulator within that jurisdiction, who would be the responsible party for providing ongoing advice to users of water in that manner.
The Department undertook to investigate the matter further, noting that it had constituted forums with states and territories which it used to ensure that ‘issues and exposures pathways … are identified and effectively managed within those jurisdictions’.
While this inquiry is focused on PFAS contamination at, and around, Defence bases, the issue is clearly a national problem that is not limited to a single portfolio, and crosses a range of industries and jurisdictional boundaries. The effectiveness of the coordination of the response to this national issue is discussed in Chapter 5.
Many communities around Defence bases have been significantly affected by PFAS contamination, including the communities of Oakey, Williamtown and Katherine. The Committee notes that it has taken some time for Defence to grasp the extent of contamination in each area, and adjustments to management zones have continued to be made. The Committee received evidence of instances where community members with local knowledge of the area could have assisted Defence to more quickly understand the full extent of contamination, but that these community members felt ‘ignored’. The Committee encourages Defence to improve its community engagement in future to ensure that community members with particular expertise are listened to.
It is clear that past delays in the communication of information to residents have contributed to the ongoing frustration of community members. While much progress has been made in this area, there is a need to continue to improve transparency to assure communities that they are being kept up to date with the latest information known to the authorities. The Committee welcomes Defence’s commitment to publishing the outcomes of investigations as soon as possible after they are finalised. The Committee also welcomes Defence’s commitment to the long term monitoring and management of PFAS contamination emanating from its bases. While the Committee understands that the sampling results cannot always be made public due to privacy concerns, these concerns will not apply in all instances (for example, in relation to sampling on public land or where a landowner consents to their results being published). The Committee recommends that, in order to improve public assurance, Defence commit to publishing results as soon as practicable where there are no such concerns.
Remediation of PFAS contamination at, and around, bases will be a long term challenge for the Australian Government. The priority to date has, rightly, been on breaking exposure pathways for affected communities. A range of precautionary measures have been put in place, including dietary advice and the provision of alternative drinking water, to ensure the most likely exposure pathways are broken. However, the risk of exposure will only be completely eliminated when the PFAS contamination is contained, and ultimately removed from, each base and the communities surrounding them.
The Committee understands the frustration of community members who highlighted that, despite Defence having knowledge of contamination leaving the base for a number of years, there has been little progress to date in remediating contamination land, or even stopping the ongoing contamination. While the Committee appreciates the enormity of the task, containment and remediation will need to become the priority for the Australian Government over the coming years.
The Committee is pleased to hear that investigations in some areas have progressed to point where long term management strategies are being finalised. The Committee encourages Defence to seek public input into these strategies, prior to their finalisation. The Committee also notes Defence’s progress to date, in particular in relation to water treatment plants to reduce the amount of contaminated surface water from leaving bases, and to reduce contamination in groundwater. It is important that these efforts continue to be upscaled to the point where the spread of contamination ceases, and begins to reverse. The Committee recognises that sustained investment over the long term will be required to achieve this.
The Committee also welcomes the investments that have been made to date in research into remediation technologies. This should be continued. The Committee notes that there is much to be learned, in particularly in relation to the remediation of contaminated soil, and the disposal of soil and water treatment residue that has been removed from the environment. Australia is not alone in facing these challenges, and the Committee encourages the Government to continue to work with international stakeholders to ensure best practice approaches are taken. International companies, such as 3M, who have been responsible for the past production of PFAS chemicals, bear a particular responsibility to assist with the remediation of PFAS contamination. The Committee encourages the Government to request the assistance of such companies in the remediation of PFAS contaminated areas, including the disposal of contaminated waste.
During the inquiry, the Committee noted varying practices regarding the extent of the use of contaminated bore water for irrigation purposes. While all three sites visited by the Committee had precautionary advice in place recommending against the drinking of bore water in the most affected areas, bore water is still being used by local government in at least one area (Katherine) for watering parks and sports fields, and there do not appear to be any restrictions placed on the use of private bores by state and territory regulatory authorities at any site. The Committee recognises that any restrictions on the use of bore water would be a state and territory responsibility, and that the need for restrictions may vary from site to site. However, the Committee was not assured that sufficient consideration has been given as to the extent to which unrestricted use of bore water is contributing to the spread of PFAS contamination to areas that would otherwise by unaffected. The lack of restrictions may also contribute to unanticipated exposure pathways, for example, by children playing under or even drinking from sprinklers. The Committee recommends that this matter be given further consideration at a national level.
The Committee recommends that the Government continue to upscale its investment in the containment of PFAS contamination plumes, and the remediation of contaminated land and water sources. The Coordinator-General (see Recommendation 1) should:
publish draft remediation and management plans for each investigation area, and seek public input before finalisation;
continue support for research into remediation technologies, including disposal of contaminated soil and residue from water treatment plants;
continue to engage with international stakeholders, including past manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, to ensure best practice approaches are taken to the remediation and disposal of PFAS contamination;
in collaboration with states and territories, review the effectiveness of current advice regarding the use of contaminated bore water for irrigation purposes and to consider whether restrictions should be put in place; and
ensure a consistent approach to PFAS contamination across non-Commonwealth sites in consultation with state, territory and local governments.