Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton claims state government cannot ban PFAS, but federal advice differs

Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton has refused to explain her claim that NSW cannot ban the use of toxic firefighting chemicals, despite it appearing to contradict the advice of the federal government and two other states that have already put bans in force.

In parliament, Ms Upton was grilled by Labor over why NSW had failed to ban the use of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals [PFAS], which have contaminated at least 90 communities across the country as a result of their use in fire retardants for decades.

"The Member for Port Stephens knows that this government cannot ban PFAS," she responded.

"The responsibility for that lies directly at the feet of the Federal Government and the things it has done."

But according to a regulation impact statement from the federal Department of Environment, released last year, responsibilities for regulation of chemicals are shared between jurisdictions.

"The states and territories typically deal with on-ground risk management, control of use, and waste management and disposal," the report said.

"Matters covered by state and territory legislation could include requirements for the licensing of facilities and sites using PFOS, the storage, disposal and clean-up of PFOS wastes (including destruction) and bans on PFOS releases."

Asked yesterday whether she stood by the position, her office declined to comment.

Instead, a spokesman for the Environment Protection Authority said the federal government was working on the issue.

"The federal government notes that industry has phased out most non-essential uses of PFAS following the recognition of risks to the environment and potential risks to human health."

The statement did not address whether the state government could ban the chemicals.

"As in NSW, SA and QLD have started to phase out the use of PFAS for firefighting.

"Currently, NSW Fire and Rescue and Rural Fire Service have advised that they currently use PFAS-free foams to fight fires."

Opposition environment spokeswoman Penny Sharpe was incredulous at the environment minister's comments to the Parliament, pointing out that two other states have put bans on PFAS in place.

"Clearly banning PFAS can be done but Minister Upton doesn't want to. She needs to explain why," Ms Sharpe said.

"NSW should be leading on this when again, we're left lagging behind."

The Labor member for Port Stephens Kate Washington said Ms Upton’s failure to act “is irresponsible in the extreme”.

“The Turnbull government has been sitting on its hands from the outset, so Ministers in Qld and SA have acted to ban PFAS,” Ms Washington said.

“Minister Upton should be doing the same to protect the people of NSW.

“To mislead the community and say it’s solely the federal government’s responsibility just doesn’t wash.”

Australia is one of the only countries in the world not to have banned perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), arguably the most toxic in the PFAS family of chemicals.

The federal government is defending class actions from several communities affected by contaminated drinking water, including Williamtown.

The chemicals were added to the Stockholm Convention, a UN treaty that aims to eliminate dangerous pollutants, in 2009.

Both Queensland and South Australia have gone it alone, both banning the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS.

Last year the Department of Environment has recommended Australia ratify the treaty and proceed with the ban,.

The federal government, however, is still considering its position.

The Turnbull government has been sitting on its hands from the outset, so ministers in Qld and SA have acted to ban PFAS. Minister Upton should be doing the same to protect the people of NSW.

Kate Washington

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