This alert is relevant to water corporations and local government.

Perfluorinated chemicals (“PFCs”) also known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”) are a group of chemicals that repel oil and water with wide ranging industrial applications, including fire-fighting foam, non-stick cookware, grease-proof packaging, cleaning products, stain protectants (carpet & upholstery).

PFCs are considered contaminants of emerging concerning with demonstrated characteristics of persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity. PFCs are problematic in the human body as they bind to fat proteins and are retained for a prolonged period.

In 2002 major manufacturers of PFCs in the USA terminated production following the widespread detection of PFCs in the blood of the general population and studies revealing health concerns in animals. Studied continue around the world assessing the impact on human health. PFCs continue to be manufactured in other countries.

Class action against a PFC manufacturer in the USA lead a scientific expert panel to conclude a probably link between exposure and kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, ulcerative colitis and hypercholesterolemia.

Significant environmental contamination has been detected across Australia at facilities where the application of fire-fighting foam has occurred over extended periods. Fire-fighting foam containing PFCs was phased out in Australia from around 2007. PFC contamination from the use of fire-fighting foams has migrated in groundwater, surface water and airborne mist, in some instances large distances.

The Commonwealth Department of Defence has implemented its ‘PFAS Investigation and Management Program’ for defence sites across Australia. In Victoria, these site include RAAF East Sale, Wodonga Military Area (Bandiana) and HMAS Cerberus.

Results of the preliminary site investigations have been publicly disclosed here.

Group litigation has commenced in New South Wales and Queensland in relation to PFAS contamination caused by Defence facilities at Williamstown and Oakey.

In Victorian the State Government has committed to a compensation scheme for persons directly affected by the contamination at the Country Fire Authority’s (“CFA”) activities at it’s now closed Fiskville Training College. Significant PFAS contamination was identified on site and within groundwater and surface water migrating substantive distances offsite.

In May 2016 the Parliamentary Inquiry’s Final Report – Inquiry into the CFA College at Fiskville detailed significant findings and recommendations in relation to the significant PFAS contamination at the facility.

The Environment Protection Authority (“EPA”) has issued clean up notices to the CFA for all of its 7 regional training centres.

EPA has also issued remedial notices to Esso Australia Pty Ltd for its gas plant at Longford and Qenos Pty Ltd for its chemical plant at Altona.

Public health warnings have also been made limiting the consumption of fish (e.g Hazelwood Pondage).

Federal and State Government guidance on acceptable contaminant levels continue to evolve. The Western Australian Government’s ‘Interim Guideline on Assessment and Management of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)’ is generally adopted as contemporary guidance.

Authoritative international text relied upon by experts assessing PFAS contamination as part of the Commonwealth’s ‘PFAS Investigation and Management Program’ identifies the accumulation of PFAS in sewage sludge and biosolids from wastewater management facilities.¹

Statement Government intervention will occur investigating the extent of contamination, assessing the human health risk from exposure and guidance/management options required to mitigate the potential public health risk.

Water Corporations and Local Government should be aware of these contaminants of emerging concern in the context of:

  • owner of impacted land (surface water, groundwater and soil)
  • operator of wastewater management facilities
  • producers of products for land application
  • planning authority (delineating impacted environment and applying planning controls)
  • responsible authority for planning permit applications of impacted land
  • employer (potential exposure of employees)
  • public health (water supply; public places; consumption of contaminated crops/ livestock / fish)
  • proposed delegated environmental regulator in Regional Victoria under the Environment Protection Act 1970 (for local government)

Significant cost is associated with work to delineate the extent of any impact and to consider the risk of any contamination of the environment and the use of that environment to the human health.

A regional council in NSW has publicly sought funding from the Federal Government to assist with these costs arising from a contamination at a regional airport.

Water Corporations and Local Government will need to develop strategies addressing communication with the local community and other agencies an important aspect.

Expert services (environmental, toxicological, human health) and legal representation should also form part of a Water Corporation’s and Municipal Council’s strategy.

Maintaining legal professional privilege in information generated may be appropriate while a response is prepared.