ACT govt nets $2m selling contaminated site for child care centre
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ACT govt nets $2m selling contaminated site for child care centre

Contamination from toxic chemicals was discovered at the former Charnwood fire station before the ACT government netted $2 million by re-zoning the land and selling it to become a child care centre.

Planning documents provided to Fairfax Media showed the Health Directorate raised concerns in 2017 about building a child care centre on the contaminated site at 35 Lhotsky Street.

PFAS contamination has been confirmed at the old Charnwood fire station, which is slated to become a child care centre.

PFAS contamination has been confirmed at the old Charnwood fire station, which is slated to become a child care centre.

Photo: Supplied.

“…[Health Protection Services] has advised that the results obtained through [the Land Development Agency] has provided evidence that PFOS contamination levels on-site is considered unacceptable due to its potential health impact on children,” planning documents read.

“[Health Protection Services] has raised concerns in relation to the suitability of the site for the proposed childcare centre.”

An ACT government spokesman said contamination from fire fighting foams containing toxic polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) fell below threshold levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States.

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International criteria were used because Australia lacked its own thresholds at the time.

He said the Health Directorate and the ACT’s Environment Protection Authority had subsequently put “additional protection measures” in place to make the site safe.

Both agencies had "endorsed the mitigation measures proposed for the site", the spokesman said.

One example of such a protection measure was using fences to limit children having direct contact with soils where contamination could pose a risk, he said.

“Canberrans can be assured that the conditions put in place on the development application attached to this site require appropriate remediation of the site before it can be used for a childcare centre," he said.

"The development application for the child care centre on the site of the former Charnwood fire station was approved on the condition that requirements of both the Health Protection Service and the Environment Protection Authority were met."

The Charnwood site was sampled in 2014 and 2015 prior to its sale by the former Land Development Agency.

Contamination fears were raised in a 2014 community consultation report, commissioned as the government prepared to re-zone the land.

“Fire fighters use chemicals as fire retardants, which could be deposited on site through cleaning the equipment,” read a resident's comment included in the report.

“If any contamination of the site is present, the site would be unsuitable for residential or childcare facilities, as these are far more sensitive land uses than the former ‘industrial’ land use.”

Aviation rescue and firefighting training exercises involving toxic foam at Melbourne's Tullamarine airport in 1998.

Aviation rescue and firefighting training exercises involving toxic foam at Melbourne's Tullamarine airport in 1998.

Photo: United Firefighters Union

Fairfax Media asked the ACT government whether the community had been specifically notified of the contamination findings.

“No,” a spokesman replied.

In August 2017, the planning directorate approved the development application to build a child care centre on the site.

The application outlined plans to demolish the existing buildings, and replace them with a single-storey facility with enough space for 176 children.

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Before the land was sold it was rezoned from the transport services classification to the community facility classification.

The site fetched $2.1 million when it was auctioned by the former Land Development Agency in November 2016.

Prospective buyers were provided with a site investigation report prior to the sale. It said contamination levels were below thresholds for residential use, an ACT government spokesman said.

The number of sites confirmed to be contaminated by PFAS in the ACT is now three. Contamination has also been detected at the former Belconnen fire station and Canberra Airport.

Government briefings from December 2017 reveal PFAS contamination could be present at as many as seven further fire stations in the territory.

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PFAS chemicals were present in aqueous film forming foams used by fire fighters until they were phased out in 2005.

The national industrial chemicals regulator has described PFAS chemicals as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic.

A recent report from a panel established by the federal government said there was no consistent evidence showing exposure to PFAS had a negative impact on human health.

However, some PFAS chemicals “have been globally identified as chemicals of high concern to human health and the environment”, according to guidance published on Access Canberra’s website.

The former Charnwood fire station has not been used since 2013, when a new combined station was opened in Belconnen.