A RECOMMENDATION that Australia would join another 171 nations by phasing out the chemical blighting the life of Williamtown, Salt Ash and Fullerton Cove residents is the latest step in this country’s slow bureaucratic response to what is clearly a pressing social and financial problem, as well as a worryingly uncertain health risk.
Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) was added to the United Nations’ Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2009. Australia has signed the treaty but has not ratified it by having the PFOS sections apply as domestic law.
The Commonwealth Department of Environment and Energy has presented the Australian government with four options, from doing nothing through to the recommended option of banning the use of PFOS for all but some specialised medical uses, while ratifying the UN treaty.
Government agencies, including the Department of Defence, have stopped using PFOS as a fire-retardant – the cause of the problem that has spilled out from Williamtown RAAF base. However in recommending that PFOS be phased out over five years, the report reveals the chemical is still being used for fire-fighting, if only in limited quantities.
The report predicts that about 1900 kilograms of PFOS will be used in fire-fighting in 2017-18. A small number of other uses account for another 300 kilograms but these figures are modest next to the nation’s “legacy stockpile” of PFOS, which the report puts at almost 26,000 kilograms, most of it owned by “large businesses or government organisations”.
This material would have to safely stored or destroyed if the Stockholm treaty was ratified. Because PFOS is such an environmentally persistent chemical, the safest method of destruction is seen as high-temperature incineration or “plasma arc” destruction.
Although the report has been welcomed by Labor and residents’ groups, two sentences in its introduction reveal its limitations for Williamtown. It says: “There are no costs identified for individuals or community groups. Importantly, the proposed options focus on limiting future PFOS emissions and as such will not address historical issues such as previous emissions or currently contaminated sites.”
All progress is welcomed, obviously, but the wheels of bureaucracy grind exceedingly slow for Williamtown’s blameless victims.