The Committee heard perspectives on PFAS contamination responses by the Australian Government, outside of Defence bases, from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (DITRDC) and Airservices Australia on 3 September 2021.
Some of the key issues discussed with the DITRDC and Airservices Australia at this hearing included:
the adoption of new foam product by Airservices Australia,
site investigations and remediation efforts undertaken by Airservices Australia,
investigations at federally-leased airports,
the challenges specific to commercial airports,
collaboration with the Department of Defence, and
the blood serum study of current and former Airservices Australia staff.
Role of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (DITRDC)
The DITRDC stated that it ‘is responsible for the administration of the airport environmental regulatory regime at 19 federally leased airports around Australia.’ The DITRDC advised that:
Under the terms of head lease agreements between the Commonwealth and airports, the airport-lessee companies are responsible for the environmental management of airport land. The department has a role as regulator in ensuring that all federally leased airports are managing those requirements.
Role of Airservices Australia
Airservices Australia is ‘Australia's air navigation service provider’ and is ‘responsible for Australia's airspace management and aviation rescue and firefighting services.’ Airservices Australia operates the Federal Government’s Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting Service at 27 airports, which has resulted in some cases of PFAS contamination arising from the use of PFAS containing fire fighting foams.
Adoption of a PFAS-free foam product by Airservices Australia
Airservices Australia stated ‘when concerns about these foams first emerge in the early 2000s, [it] acted quickly’ and has ‘been using a PFAS-free foam at civilian airports since 2010.’ Airservices Australia currently uses the Solberg foam product, which is considered by Airservices to be ‘as effective as the prior foams. It meets our operational requirements, and it's also approved by [the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA)].’
Airservices advised that the Solberg product it uses is PFAS free:
Airservices has signed [a non-disclosure agreement] with Solberg and is aware of the chemical makeup of the RF6 foam that we carry on our vehicles. Airservices can confirm that RF6 does not contain PFAS and we have performed our own analysis to confirm it is PFAS free.
Due to ‘when this foam was developed and confirmed for use, as an organisation’ Airservices Australia stated it is ‘very hopeful that the negative impacts of foams that were developed in the 1970s will have been ameliorated in the current foams that we are now using’. Airservices Australia elaborated that:
Outside of assessments undertaken by Airservices and Solberg, we are not aware of any independent studies into the potential environmental or health impacts of the Solberg RF6 foam. It is important to note that Solberg RF6 foam is a fire fighting foam product accredited by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) for use in an aviation setting. All manufacturers of accredited firefighting foams must meet the requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) which include environmental assessments of the impacts of their foams on flora and fauna.
Airservices Australia stated that in 2019 at joint-user facilities with the Department of Defence it had also ‘transferred to the Solberg products, which Defence decided they were happy to do.’
Investigations undertaken by Airservices Australia
Airservices Australia has ongoing investigations at certain sites where its Aviation Rescue and Firefighting Services operated. Airservices Australia stated that it ‘commence[d] an extensive investigation program to inform what ongoing management actions were required and how best to direct remedial efforts’ and has ‘ongoing investigations at 19 airports.’ Airservices Australia elaborated:
… desktop reviews identified that we have not used PFAS containing foams at five of the 27 airports which we service. Of the remaining 22 locations, Darwin and Townsville airports are joint-user facilities where the Department of Defence is leading investigations. At one airport the PFAS identified predates our presence.
Airservices Australia stated its current focus is to undertake ‘detailed site investigations’ that obtain ‘comprehensive information on the type, extent and level of contamination and if remedial action is required.’ Airservices Australia stated due to the complexity of [the] sites these may take between 12 and 18 months to complete.’
Site management plans that were developed by Airservices Australia were stated to ‘include ongoing monitoring of ground and surface water, removing stockpiles of contaminated materials and capturing and removing contaminated water runoff in some locations.’
Airservices Australia stated it continues ‘to explore practical remediation solutions’ through its research and development program. This has included ‘trialling several technologies at Hobart Airport to treat wastewater prior to release into the environment’, and looking at ‘soil-binding agents and applications to concrete which prevent leaching of contamination into the ground and surface water.’ Airservices Australia stated ‘these are promising technologies, but challenges still remain in deploying solutions at scale without disrupting [its] service provision.’
Investigations at federally-leased civilian airports
There are 19 federally-leased civilian airports regulated by the DITRDC. The DITRDC stated there is PFAS contamination ‘at federally leased airports from the use of PFAS based firefighting foams in aviation rescue and firefighting services and fuel suppression systems in aircraft hangars, fuel facilities and other tenant facilities on airports.’
The DITRDC stated that ‘the full extent of pollution across all airport sites is not currently known.’ The DITRDC detailed that ‘airports are at different stages in undertaking PFAS investigations and establishing management plans’:
For example, the larger airports, such as Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane, have significantly advanced investigative programs, whereas other airports may not yet have commenced this process. As Airservices Australia indicated, it is also undertaking investigations at 19 locations where it has historically used PFAS-containing firefighting foam.
The DITRDC advised that the regulatory framework established by the Airports Act and the Airports (Environment Protection) Regulations captures PFAS issues as it ‘applies to the management of all on-airport environmental issues, including air, soil, water, noise and chemical pollution.’ The DITRDC stated that ‘airport environment officers, or AEOs, are employed by the department to oversee the on-ground environmental management of federally leased airports’, including PFAS matters.
Challenges specific to commercial airports
Airservices Australia and DITRDC identified that complexities of commercial airports, which DITRDC described as ‘complex industrial sites with multiple tenants’. Airservices Australia also highlighted that remediation at a ‘busy civilian airport, has the potential to disrupt service provision and affect operations.’
The DITRDC stated that the ‘presence of former landfill sites and the migration of PFAS from surrounding urban or industrial areas may also contribute to on-airport contamination.’
Collaboration with the Department of Defence
At Darwin and Townsville Airport, Airservices Australia stated that it operates ‘under contract to Defence’. Airservices Australia stated that while the Department of Defence is the primary investigator at the joint-user facilities, Airservices Australia will ‘be undertaking a targeted site investigation at Darwin Airport to get much more detail on the PFAS that may be under the training path that we use there.’
Airservices Australia stated it ‘most recently met with the Department of Defence in August 2021. It's very much about learning lessons from each other and also sharing guidance material’ with the agencies having ‘a very open relationship that's mutually beneficial.’ The DITRDC stated that it also recognised that ‘Defence is the leader in this space and so are very much liaising with them as we start to frame our own investigative program and learn lessons from them.’
Blood serum study of current and former Airservices Australia staff
Airservices Australia commissioned the University of Queensland to evaluate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the blood serum of Airservices Australia’s current and former staff in 2014 and 2018. This research is discussed further in Chapter 9.
Airservices Australia stated ‘at an organisational level’ the study has given it ‘confidence that the controls that … put in place are effective.’ Airservices also stated it was ‘very pleased to be contributing to the health science, given that this was a world-first study.’
For employees, Airservices Australia stated the study ‘has given’ its ‘employees significant assurance.’ Dr Claire Marrison, Chief Risk and Safety Officer, Airservices Australia, indicated that Airservices Australia intends to commission ‘further studies to assure ourselves that all actions that we can take have been taken and that we give our staff the mental wellbeing confirmation that the PFAS is depleting in their bloodstream.’
Airservices Australia highlighted the increase in participation, from 137 employees in the first study, to over 800 current and former employees in 2018. Dr Marrison, Airservices Australia, stated this increase suggested ‘that people are both confident in the researchers and interested in the reduction in PFAS that has come from us taking the opportunity to eliminate PFAS-containing foam from our operations.’
In its Second Progress Report, the Committee identified that the approaches of Airservices Australia and DITRDC may provide insight into PFAS contamination approaches off Defence bases. The Committee acknowledges evidence that Airservices Australia and the Department of Defence have shared information and learnings.
The Committee heard that Airservices Australia is undertaking investigations at sites where the Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting Service has operated. The Committee also heard that the DITRDC has an environmental regulatory role over airports based on Federal Government (Commonwealth) land.
The Committee notes that the operation of commercial airports involve some complexities that do not exist for Department of Defence sites. The Committee learned that PFAS remediation at busy commercial airports has the potential to disrupt service provision and affect operations.
The Committee acknowledges evidence that Airservices Australia started transitioning to a PFAS-free foam in 2010. The Committee also acknowledges evidence that Airservices has also obtained the agreement of the Department of Defence on the use of this foam at Townsville and Darwin airports.
The Committee heard that Airservices Australia arranged blood testing for employees, through the University of Queensland, at an early stage. The Committee notes that this has provided assurance to Airservices Australia that PFAS blood levels in its staff have decreased as, and provided peace of mind to its employees in understanding their baseline PFAS levels.