The Department of Defence is dealing with a public relations crisis in relation to the contamination of 22 sites around Australia by per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) used in a fire-fighting foam since the 1970s.
The environmental and human health impacts of the Defence Department's use of the foam over a period of decades is the subject of a Four Corners program aired this week. The program found that despite warnings in 1987 that the foam must not enter the environment, many thousands of litres were released onto bare earth or washed into stormwater systems.
The possible health risks of PFAS have been known since 2000, and two separate class actions representing around 1000 residents at Williamtown and at Oakey in Queensland have been taken out against the Department of Defence alleging negligence in relation to contamination and seeking financial compensation.
In Katherine in the Northern Territory, PFAS sourced from the Defence base have leached into the aquifer, contaminating the drinking water and the local pool. Two weeks ago, the Federal Government installed a treatment plant to reduce the PFAS levels.
PFAS were used in a fire-fighting foam produced by 3M, and in 2000 3M was ordered by the US EPA to cease producing the product. The Australian Government was warned at this time by US authorities that the foam was a potential human health hazard, however according to the Four Corners report the Department of Defence did not replace it until July 2012, and did not warn the residents near the Williamtown base of the risks for another three years.
The Department of Defence has set up a website outlining its national program to investigate and manage the impacts of PFAS at or near its bases. The site lists 22 locations where investigations are under way.
According to expert, Professor Mark Taylor, interviewed by Four Corners, remediation of the Williamtown site was “not a practical option.” Professor Taylor said that over the past five years more than $100 million had been spent or is committed to be expended on remediation attempts.
PFAS do not break down in the environment and accumulate in the food chain. Elevated levels have been found in the blood of residents of Williamtown and Oakey, according to the Four Corners report.