Surprise at push for PFAS air testing around site of proposed Cabbage Tree Road sand mine in Williamtown

DOUBTS RAISED: Dr David Durrheim of Hunter New England Health, pictured above, says air monitoring should be considered around a sand mine in the heart of the Williamtown contamination 'red zone'. Picture: Ryan Osland
DOUBTS RAISED: Dr David Durrheim of Hunter New England Health, pictured above, says air monitoring should be considered around a sand mine in the heart of the Williamtown contamination 'red zone'. Picture: Ryan Osland

HUNTER New England Health has urged a company pushing for a new sand quarry at Williamtown to consider air monitoring for the potentially carcinogenic chemicals that have polluted the land surrounding the RAAF base. 

The request has raised eyebrows among residents of the so-called ‘red zone’, as it appears to be the first public admission by a government agency that the toxic perfluoroalkyl chemicals - also known as PFAS – could pose a risk in the air and dust.

In a written submission on the 42 hectare quarry proposed for Cabbage Tree Road, public health physician Dr David Durrheim urged the Williamtown Sand Syndicate to consider a “surveillance component” to monitor “the level of airborne pollutants escaping from the site.” 

“This should include exploring the feasibility of directly measuring offsite airborne PFAS levels...to address the concerns of community members,” he wrote. 

Overseas studies have confirmed PFAS can spread in dust and the community has been pleading for testing after some residents returned significantly elevated blood readings of the chemicals without consuming contaminated food or water. 

However both the NSW EPA and the Department of Defence have maintained the position that inhalation is not a “significant” exposure pathway for humans.  

Newcastle accountant Chris Sneddon is a director of the syndicate and said they had been unable to respond because Dr Durrheim’s letter was still being considered by the EPA. But he said the company had gone to lengths to consult with the community and had addressed “many of the issues” raised. 

“I’m not saying everyone is over the moon but they’ve definitely got the knowledge of how the development is going,” he said. 

The Department of Resources and Energy was not satisfied with the company’s assertion that radiation monitoring was not necessary because trenches of radioactive monazite buried on the site were ‘likely’ to be outside the footprint of the mine. 

“Radiation monitoring is advisable in order to prevent the possibility of sand containing monazite being used for residential construction,” it wrote. 

Hunter Water highlighted possible errors in the groundwater modelling submitted by the company, used to show its operations would be above the water table and would therefore not interfere with PFAS contamination in the groundwater. 

Senior engineer Malcolm Withers wrote that Hunter Water was concerned about “inconsistencies” in the data, which needed to be explained. 

“The model appeared to exclude periods of expected highest groundwater levels (eg.1991) and that the highest recorded levels appear to be higher than the maximum levels predicted by modelling,” he wrote. 

The company defended its modelling, saying it took into account “an extensive range of bores with over 50 years of data.”

However the company agreed that if the modelling was shown to be inaccurate, it would reevaluate the depth of the sand mine in order to maintain the buffer above the water table, even if that resulted in a reduction in the overall amount of sand that could be extracted. 

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