Toxic foam contamination could impact nine more sites across Canberra
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Toxic foam contamination could impact nine more sites across Canberra

Toxic fire fighting foams could have left a legacy of contamination at nine fire stations across the ACT as well as defence department and police facilities, government briefings reveal.

Potentially-harmful polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have previously been detected in soil and groundwater at Canberra Airport.

Toxic PFAS foams were used at airports across Australia, including Tullamarine in Melbourne, which is pictured during a 1998 exercise.

Toxic PFAS foams were used at airports across Australia, including Tullamarine in Melbourne, which is pictured during a 1998 exercise.Credit:United Firefighters Union

An ACT government briefing from December 2017 reveals PFAS contamination has also been confirmed at the former Belconnen fire station, and could be present at eight further fire stations.

Landfills and sewage treatment facilities could also be a source of contamination, the briefing said.

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

“ESA has identified potential sites where [aqueous film forming foams] may have been used in training and is seeking budget funding to undertake assessments of these sites to determine if contamination has occurred,” officials told Environment Minister Mick Gentleman in December 2017.

“These include the former Belconnen Fire Station and Training Centre, the current Fyshwick, Gungahlin, Chisholm, Ainslie, Phillip and Kambah fire stations, and the former fire station sites in Charnwood and Greenway.”

Fire fighters using toxic foam to put out a blaze during a training drill at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport in 1998.

Fire fighters using toxic foam to put out a blaze during a training drill at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport in 1998. Credit:United Firefighters Union.

The same briefing said there was the potential for historical contamination to also be present on Commonwealth land, for example at facilities run by the defence department.

“The ACT has a number of other sites with the potential for historical contamination including bulk fuel storage sites, Canberra Airport and miscellaneous government facilities (ie Defence facilities, research sites, space tracking facilities and police training grounds).”

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

Fire fighters during a training drill at the old Belconnen station.

Fire fighters during a training drill at the old Belconnen station. Credit:Graham Tidy.

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.

PFAS contamination scandals have notably rocked communities in the Northern Territory, Queensland and regional New South Wales.

An ACT government spokesman said a detailed sampling program to characterise PFAS sources and movements would begin in November.

“The sampling plan will involve existing water monitoring sites as well as ACT landfill, fuel storage and sewage treatment plant sites as these are potential sources of PFAS from household, commercial and industrial activities.”

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Funding had been set aside for detailed environmental assessments and remediation work at the former Belconnen fire station on Lathlain Street, the spokesman said.

“The site will be remediated prior to sale,” he said.

An ACT government briefing from July 2017 said PFAS contamination “has been identified in soil and groundwater at the Canberra Airport and Belconnen Fire Training Facilities”.

Officials from the environment directorate said no detectable impacts from the contamination had been identified during preliminary tests of ACT waterways.

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“No off-site impacts have been reported by the airport or are evident from the Belconnen site, and groundwater in both areas is not utilised for drinking or agricultural purposes,” the briefing read.

“The ACT Emergency Services Agency in consultation with Access Canberra is undertaking an assessment of other potentially contaminated sites in the ACT.

“To complement this assessment, Access Canberra has undertaken preliminary sampling of ACT waterways with no detectable impacts identified.”

However, officials also noted in a separate December 2017 briefing that waterway testing had been limited.

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

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

In the December 2017 briefing, ACT officials said federal government agency Airservices Australia had agreed to remove contaminated soil from the airport.

“Airservices Australia have recently obtained approval from the NSW EPA to dispose of PFAS contaminated soil from the Canberra Airport into NSW,” officials wrote.

Between 1980 and 2003 PFAS-containing fire foams were used by government-employed fire fighters at dozens of airports and military bases across Australia.

The manufacture of these foams is prohibited although it is legal to use existing supplies, according to the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment.

Use of PFAS foams was banned outright by Queensland and South Australia in 2017, the centre stated in online material.

Steven Trask is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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