[ Canberra Times ]

Chemical crisis spreads to nation's airports

Date: March 20 2017


Steven Trask

The chemical contamination crisis hitting Australian military bases is now flaring up at commercial airports across the country, including Canberra.

Officials fear toxic chemicals from fire fighting foams have polluted the soil at 22 of the country's largest airports, which are stuck in a year-long deadlock with the federal government over how to clean them up. 

From 1980 to 2003 the foams, which contained harmful polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), were used by government-employed fire fighters at dozens of airports and military bases.

The Environment Department has previously described the chemicals as "persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic".  

In 2008, the first preliminary site tests identified possible PFAS contamination at Canberra Airport's old fire fighting training ground.

Further investigations, which are ongoing, found PFAS residues in the soil and groundwater around another site at the airport's fire station.  

A spokeswoman from Canberra Airport, which was leased from the Commonwealth in 1998 when little was known about PFAS, said the government needed to take responsibility for the pollution.  

"The assessment and any remediation of pollution at Canberra Airport and other national airports is not the responsibility of the airport owners," the spokeswoman said.

"[It is] the direct responsibility of the Commonwealth and [government entity] Airservices Australia."

Major airports including Sydney, Gold Coast, Perth, and Brisbane are either known or thought to be affected by PFAS contamination.

In February 2016 the government wrote to affected facilities, warning them about PFAS and asking them to investigate contamination within their sites.

The Australian Airports Association replied four days later, saying it was the government's responsibility to front-up to the pollution. 

Association chief executive Caroline Wilkie told Fairfax Media there were still major hurdles to solving the problem more than a year after the exchange. 

"The Commonwealth government, in consultation with state governments, has a responsibility to establish and enforce a national regulatory framework for PFAS management to ensure responsible polluters implement practical remediation, containment and ongoing testing solutions," she said.

"Unfortunately, the finalisation of this national PFAS management regulatory framework has not yet been completed."

Airservices Australia is the government entity responsible for providing fire fighting operations at many of the airports where PFAS contamination is either known or suspected. 

An Airservices spokeswoman said the government was committed to addressing the complex issue, however, it did not accept it was responsible for all instances of PFAS contamination across airport sites.

"Airservices…does not accept that it is the only source of any potential PFAS contamination on-airport or should have sole responsibility for detected PFAS contamination across the entire airport site," she said. 

"Airservices takes responsibility for the management of its sites, and any contamination attributed to the historic use of PFAS-containing fire fighting foams, at airports nationally."

The government planned to remove contaminated soil from Canberra Airport but had so far failed to gain approval to dump it elsewhere, the spokeswoman added.

In November last year, a report commissioned by the Department of Defence examined PFAS contamination within water supplies near 12 Australian Air Force bases. 

Contamination near an Air Force base in the Northern Territory town of Katherine was so bad the Department of Defence has started supplying 44 properties with bottled drinking water.

Infrastructure and Transport Minister Darren Chester said his department was working across government to formulate a solution to the PFAS issue at commercial airports.

"In the interim, guidance materials have been developed and provided to federally-leased airports," he said.

"These documents present a way to manage risk associated with legacy PFAS contamination."