Toxic chemical found in groundwater at BHP’s Newman iron ore hub in Pilbara

The West Australian
BHP said low levels of PFAS had been detected in isolated areas of the mining operations.
Camera IconBHP said low levels of PFAS had been detected in isolated areas of the mining operations. Credit: capturethisphotography/Getty Images/iStockphoto

BHP has been ordered to submit plans to a government department as to how it proposes to clean-up a site at its Newman mining hub that has been contaminated by dangerous chemicals.

The WA Department of Water and Environmental Regulation has told the mining giant to submit an interim site management plan this month and a remediation management plan by July to deal with the presence of contaminants in soils and groundwater at the Mt Whaleback site.

The chemicals include petroleum hydrocarbons from diesel or oil, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, which are substances used in firefighting foam and asbestos.

The DWER has listed the 4147ha site as “contaminated — remediation required”, raising concerns about a potential threat to human health, including mine workers, and the environment.

It is understood the contamination has been caused a range of industrial uses on the site including a former diesel-fired power station, an asbestos mining waste disposal area and fire response training exercises.

“Further soil investigations, groundwater investigations and an appropriate risk assessment are required to adequately delineate and characterise the current nature and extent of soil and groundwater contamination,” DWER said in a summary statement.

The department has urged the company to pay particular attention to determining the risk to on-site workers and drinking water supplies.

“Remediation of the site is required to mitigate potential risks to human health, the environment and/or any environmental value,” DWER said.

It said PFAS, which are known carcinogens, were detected in soils and also found to be present in groundwater at concentrations “exceeding health-based guidance values for drinking water, and guideline values for freshwater ecosystems”.

A BHP spokesman said BHP had detected low levels of PFAS in isolated areas at its Newman operations but, to date, studies had not indicated any health risk.

“In line with emerging global best practice and to be consistent with our Queensland and South Australian operations, BHP is transitioning to the use of fluorine free fire-fighting foams across its WA iron ore operational sites,” he said.

“We expect this transition to be completed by mid-2022, or earlier if possible.

“We are currently assessing the impact of historic PFAS use at our sites, developing appropriate management plans and keeping regulatory authorities informed.”

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