High levels of toxic chemicals found near Port Hedland Airport

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John FlintNorth West Telegraph
Port Hedland Airport.
Camera IconPort Hedland Airport. Credit: North West Telegraph

High levels of toxic chemicals linked to firefighting foams have been found near Port Hedland Airport, not far from homes in South Hedland.

The highly contaminated area is on a growing list of WA sites impacted by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are a global concern.

PFAS has also entered the Swan and Canning rivers, and is present at locations across Perth.

The WA Government, like other State governments, is scrambling to get a handle on the scale of the problem.

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Until now, most of the focus has been on defence bases which extensively used the old foams. Several communities near defence bases, including homes in Bullsbrook near RAAF Base Pearce, are unable to drink or use bore water because the man-made chemicals can accumulate in the body.

The PFAS group of chemicals includes: perfluorooctane sulfanate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS).

At RAAF Base Williamstown in NSW — the focus of much eastern states’ media coverage on the PFAS issue — the maximum PFOS concentration recorded in groundwater is 35 micrograms a litre. At the Port Hedland site, officials have recorded PFOS in groundwater as high as 25,000mcg/L. And in soil, has reached 670,000mcg/kg.

The figures were provided in WA Parliament this week.

The Port Hedland site, referred to as Zone D, was previously used for fire-fighting training and storage of foams. Significant ground water concentrations of PFOS and PFOA were detected as recently as March. The also littered with asbestos-containing materials. It was officially classified as Contaminated - remediation required on May 31, this year.

“A human health and ecological risk assessment found that soil and groundwater contamination on the site poses a potentially unacceptable risk to human health and requires management and/or remediation,” documents reveal.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation told PerthNow a preliminary risk assessment found “there was a low risk of contaminants in groundwater at the site migrating to impact off-site properties”.

“The high PFOS and PFOA concentrations . . . are maximum values detected at the site. These levels were measured at a location immediately adjacent to the former fire training ground,” she said. “Groundwater flow in the area is towards the north-east, meaning that any migration of impacted groundwater is not in the direction of residential areas in Wedgefield or South Hedland. Air Services Australia, the Commonwealth agency responsible for emergency response and fire training at the airport, is conducting further investigations at the site.”

The spokeswoman added: “Anyone using private bores to meet some of their water needs is advised to follow WA Department of Health’s longstanding advice on using bore water safely — bore water should never be used for drinking, bathing, watering edible plants, filling swimming and paddling pools, food preparation or cooking unless it has been tested and treated to the extent necessary for the intended use.”

Environment officials have already rejected one management plan proposed for the Port Hedland site. Documents reveal they are worried about “dispersal of mobile contaminants via surface water flow.”

PerthNow can reveal contamination has already spread beyond the site boundary.

Opposition environment spokesman Steve Thomas said: “It has taken two months of questioning to get the Government to acknowledge that there is a problem with PFAS contamination in WA, and at this point the Government has no plan to manage it.”

“Some of the sites tested have huge levels of contamination, like Port Headland airport. Others are low level, but I am extremely concerned that of twenty sites in the Swan and Canning estuary and twenty six sites in the sub-catchments tested as part of a general testing program of surface water every one of them showed some level of contamination. This indicates how PFAS chemicals have spread through Perth's waterways.”

Port Hedland Mayor Camilo Blanco said while he was aware of the contaminated site near the airport, but he was unaware of high concentrations of PFAS.

“I don’t want to see local government be left with the clean up bill,” he said. “We as a town took control of the airport site quite a few years ago and we had no control over what the Federal Government was using in their fire suppressants.”

PerthNowhas previously revealed PFAS contamination in earth removed by tunnelling work on the Forrestfield airport link, which threatens to add to the cost of the project. Fire stations and training facilities have also been affected. These include the WA Fire and Emergency Services Academy in Forrestfield and the former DFES headquarters in Hay Street, Perth.

In October, we revealed an audit was under way to establish the number of current and former DFES facilities affected by PFAS. Preliminary site investigations for 13 sites from a sample of 20 are complete, DFES said this week. DWER is currently reviewing the preliminary results to determine whether any sites need to be classified as contaminated.

The United Firefighters Union WA branch believes up to 500 locations could be impacted.

PFAS contamination at Perth Airport and other regional airports are also under assessment. PFAS was used at five airports until 2003. Several defence facilities have been impacted and undergoing more tests.

In 2009, PFOS was added to the Stokholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), to which Australia is a signatory. ​The convention is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from POPs.

Lee Bell, WA researcher for the National Toxics Network, said POPs are the most toxic chemicals on the planet.

“The presence of POP’s in our river and groundwater systems is a nightmare for WA given our scarce groundwater resources and the high level of recreational use and fishing in the river.

“POP’s represent such a global threat to human health and the environment that international laws are required to eliminate their production and use. Western Australia must act now. The ridiculous government claims that the health effects of PFAS are unclear are laughable. They have the same access to the health data as the Stockholm Convention which assessed PFAS toxicity to be so high it was listed on the Convention Annexes.”

“There is a national crisis unfolding with PFAS contamination confirmed in most states affecting vast areas,” he said.

* * * * *

BLOOD tests on WA firefighters and former fire personnel to check exposure to toxic foam chemicals will likely start in the first half of next year.

The United Firefighters Union WA branch is eager for the program to get started as soon as possible.

Department of Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Darren Klemm confirmed a health provider had been selected.

“DFES has contracted a health provider and is in the process of finalising the blood testing program,” he told PerthNow.

United Firefighters Union WA branch secretary Lea Anderson said the union expected that all professional and volunteer firefighters, both retired and serving, would have access to the testing program.

The Federal Government last month established an expert health panel to advise it on health impacts associated with PFAS exposure. The panel will advise Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt by late February.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, exposures to PFAS chemicals have a number of adverse effects in animals and humans.

“The risk for cancer is characterised as suggestive for both PFOA and PFOS based on the animal data,” it reports. “Human epidemiology studies of one community identified an increased risk for kidney and testicular cancer in people who were highly exposed to PFOA. Chronic exposure to PFOA has been shown to lead to the development of testicular, pancreatic, and liver cancers in animals. Chronic exposure to PFOS has been shown to lead to liver tumours in animals.”

Other non-cancer health effects linked to PFAS are also cited.

Ms Anderson said the union was sceptical about “bald generalisations” from the WA Health Department that health risks from PFAS weren’t established.

“I think the time is over for that,” she said.


Commonwealth sites:

* RAAF Base Pearce, Bullsbrook (PFAS concentrations still under investigation)

* Gingin Satellite Airfield (PFAS concentrations still under investigation)

* RAAF Base Learmonth, near Exmouth (PFAS concentrations still under investigation)

* Harold E Holt Naval Communication Station A & B, near Exmouth (PFAS concentrations still under investigation)

* HMAS Stirling on Garden Island (PFAS concentrations still under investigation)

* Perth Airport (PFAS concentrations still under investigation)

Sites regulated by the WA Government:

* Future Belmont rail station, Redcliffe (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 2.31mcg/L). Classified as possibly contaminated — investigation required.

* Perth Airport South Main Drain, Redcliffe and Ascot (PFOS maximum in surface water: 0.56mcg/L; PFHxS maximum in surface water: 0.55mcg/L). Classified as possibly contaminated — investigation required.

* Perth Airport North Main Drain and Swan River foreshore at South Guildford (PFOS maximum in surface water: 3.3mcg/L; PFHxS maximum in surface water: 1.8mcg/L. Classified as contaminated — restricted use.

* Future Forrestfield rail station site (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 0.24mcg/L; PFHxS maximum 0.12mcg/L) Awaiting classification.

* Forrestfield Rail yard, Abernethy Road, High Wycombe (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 17.5mcg/L; PFHxS maximum in groundwater: 2.11mcg/L) Being reviewed for classification.

* Bayswater Main Drain, Bayswater (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 0.09mcg/L) Classified as possibly contaminated — investigation required.

* 777 Abernethy Road, Forrestfield (PFOS maximum in soil: 57.5mcg/kg; PFHxS maximum in soil: 6mcg/kg.

* Crown reserve land on Swan River foreshore at Bayswater (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 0.04mcg/L; PFHxS maximum in groundwater: 1.6mcg/L) Awaiting classification.

* DFES Training Academy, Forrestfield (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 64.4mcg/L; PFOA maximum in groundwater: 2.35mcg/L) Classified as contaminated — remediation required.

* Former DFES Headquarters, Hay St, Perth (PFOS maximum in soil: 33mcg/kg; PFHxS in groundwater; 5.11mcg/L) Classified as remediated for restricted use.

* Private fire training facility, Farrington Road, North Lake (PFOS maximum in soil: 1320mcg/kg; PFOA maximum in soil: 64.1mcg/kg; PFHxS maximum in soil: 89.2mcg/kg) Classified as contaminated — remediation required.

* Fuel refinery, Kwinana Beach Road, Kwinana (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 4.93mcg/L; PFOA maximum in groundwater: 26.2mcg/L; PFHxS maximum in groundwater: 2.29mcg/L) Classified as contaminated — remediation required.

* Former fuel terminal, Port Beach Road, North Fremantle (PFOS maximum in soil: 600mcg/kg; PFOA maximum in soil: 39mcg/kg; PFHxS maximum in soil: 16mcg/kg) Classified as remediated for restricted use.

* Former fuel terminal, Bracks Street, North Fremantle (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 6.7mcg/L; PFHxS maximum in groundwater: 4.2mcg/L) Classified as possibly contaminated — investigation required.

* Former fuel terminals, Leighton Beach Boulevard, North Fremantle (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 4.4mcg/L; PFHxS maximum in groundwater: 5.99mcg/L) Classified as contaminated — remediation required.

* Service station, Burslem Drive, Maddington (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 6.93mcg/L; PFOA maximum in groundwater: 1.74mcg/L) Classified as remediated for restricted use.

* Karratha Airport, Gap Ridge (PFOS maximum in soil: 265mcg/kg) Classified as possibly contaminated — investigation required.

* Port Hedland Airport (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 25,000mcg/L; PFOS maximum in soil: 670,000mcg/kg; PFOA maximum in groundwater: 1,010mcg/L; PFOA maximum in soil: 510mcg/kg) Classified as contaminated — remediation required.

* Part of Varanus Island (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 1.17mcg/L; PFHxS maximum in groundwater: 1.68mcg/L) Classified as contaminated — remediation required.

* Former metal recycling facility at 200 Barrington Street, Bibra Lake (PFOS maximum in soil: 18mcg/kg; PFHxS maximum in soil: 1.6mcg/kg) Classified as contaminated — remediation required.

* Vineyard near the former Bio-Organics compostig facility, 123 King Road, Oakford (PFOS maximum in groundwater: 0.04mcg/L; PFOA maximum in groundwater: 0.08mcg/L; PFHxS maximum in groundwater: 0.15mcg/L) Classified as possibly contaminated — investigation required.

* Former liquid waste recycling facility, Bulbey Street, Bellevue (PFOS maximum in soil: 14.6mcg/kg; PFOA maximum in soil: 1.8mcg/kg; PFHxS maximum in soil: 1.2mcg/kg) Classified as contaminated — remediation required.

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