Written by Environmental Manager editor Deborah Nesbitt
An interim report on contamination at Williamtown RAAF base has revealed the Department of Defence (DoD) registered contamination as early as 1999. But the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is still unsure about its powers to tackle pollution on Commonwealth land.
Review chair Macquarie University’s Professor Mark Taylor’s December 23 interim report on the EPA’s historical management of contamination at the base recommended it seek legal advice “at the highest level” to resolve the “seeming ambiguity” of its power to regulate, manage and deal with contaminated C’wealth land
Water sampling commissioned by DoD in 1999 found aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) in the groundwater across the base. But it was September 2015 when DoD alerted the EPA that legacy fire-fighting chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) from AFFF had been found in surface water, groundwater and fish around the base and Newcastle airport.
It was later confirmed DoD had told the EPA, other agencies and Port Stephens Council the contamination had moved off-site two years ago, at that stage only affecting surface water and drain sediment, not groundwater (EM 29/09/15).
The review found that before 2012, DoD and relevant NSW Government authorities, including the EPA, knew or should have known the potable water Tomago aquifer surrounding the base was a high-risk aquifer.
Also, they knew, or should have known, the lands draining from the base were “physically, biologically and chemically linked” to the adjoining Ramsar-listed Hunter Estuary Wetlands.
While that information was available to them, the connection between contaminants coming from the base and the environment and community did not appear to “trigger any specific response”, the review found.
DoD claimed ‘no significant’ EPBC impact
The review (above) found a “seeming lack of clarity” around whether the EPA had authority to regulate DoD under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 (CLM Act) or the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 on C’wealth-owned land, or where DoD was the polluter on non-C’wealth land, had “stymied” its ability to act decisively and promptly.
There was “significant indecision” within the EPA about applying the CLM Act to DoD and whether it could, or should, issue notices under the two Acts. The report found it was unclear to whom DoD was accountable for matters that didn’t fall under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
In March 2013, the EPA asked DoD to tell it about any notices it had provided the federal environment dept. DoD said there were none because there’d been no significant impact to the environment under the EPBC Act, the report said. The EPA notified the fed environment dept of the contamination in November 2013.
Internal correspondence also indicated a “lack of proper ownership” of the Williamtown contamination, with debate between DoD, the EPA and the NSW primary industry dept’s Office of Water (DPI Water) about whose responsibility it was to notify registered groundwater users about the contamination. An internal EPA email referred to DPI Water’s “apparent ongoing reluctance” to notify users as late as August 31, 2015.
Still no guidelines on legacy chemicals
In March 2013, DoD (above) received a stage one report on AFFF contamination that found PFOS in rabbits at the base. “This should have indicated it was reaching higher order species, it was bioavailable, domestic livestock were at risk of contamination and a pathway into the human food chain was highly likely or imminent,” Taylor found.
Following an August 2015 stage two AFFF report, Taylor found the EPA had acted “quickly and decisively” and committed “significant” resources to the problem. But uncertainty remained because there were no PFOS and PFOA guidelines.
Taylor said he remained concerned the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage wasn’t formally engaged until August 18, 2015, to provide the EPA with guidance on PFC limits.
Make guidelines for PFOS/PFOA a ‘priority’
The interim report (above) made six recommendations, saying the EPA should set interim guidelines for PFOS/PFOA as “a matter of priority” and called for national guidelines.
Re-assess federal-state agreement
“As a matter of priority”, the NSW and federal govts needed to resolve the state’s ability to use its enforcement powers when it came to tackling pollution on C’wealth land and its remediation when DoD or other C’wealth agencies caused it on other land, the report (above) said. It called for a reassessment of arrangements regulating DoD under the 1997 Heads of Agreement on Commonwealth and State roles and responsibilities for the environment.
The state govt should resource the EPA with a team to assess and sample emerging contaminants, such as PFOS/PFOA, and publish the chronology of events at the base, it said.
(This story first ran in Environmental Manager Issue 1035, 9 February 2016)
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