Government defends itself over handling of PFAS contamination

'SIGNIFICANT PROGRESS': The federal government has defended its handling of PFAS contamination in its submission to the Senate inquiry. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
'SIGNIFICANT PROGRESS': The federal government has defended its handling of PFAS contamination in its submission to the Senate inquiry. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

The Turnbull government has defended its handling of the country's firefighting foam contamination scandal, after coming under attack from within its own party for its failure to compensate victims trapped on toxic and unsaleable properties. 

It comes amid revelations that roughly 1150 square kilometres of land on and surrounding military bases is being investigated for toxic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals [PFAS].

An expert in toxic contamination has also warned the scope of the problem is much larger Defence sites, flagging a range of industrial sites that are likely to be polluted with the toxins - while nearby residents are oblivious to the risk. 

The federal government released its own submission to a senate inquiry into its handling of the issue on Monday, after a scathing submission was published by the NSW government. 

The Turnbull government argued it had made "significant progress" in managing the contamination. 

This included more than $120 million spent on supporting contaminated communities with counselling, blood testing and alternative drinking water, in addition to $30 million to research health effects and develop clean-up technologies. 

The NSW submission had rebuked the Turnbull government for its failure to compensate people whose property values had plummeted or who were unable to sell due to banks refusing to lend in contaminated postcodes.  NSW also called for authorities to focus on urging the public to minimize their exposure to the toxins, rather than the Commonwealth's current emphasis that there was no "consistent" evidence of health effects. 

This position appears to be at odds with the US Environmental Protection Agency, which has concluded that the "weight of evidence" shows the chemicals are a human health hazard. 

The federal government pointed out it had put $12.5 million towards a National Research Program into the effects of prolonged exposure to PFAS and was basing its advice on the findings of an expert panel. 

It also argued the devaluation of properties was largely the result of "perception or stigma, as opposed to health or environmental impacts". 

"Defence has engaged with financial institutions and property valuers, focusing on education and raising awareness about PFAS and the status of Defence's environmental investigations," it said. 

The federal government revealed it had fielded 33 active claims for compensation due to PFAS contamination at the end of May, but said it would not be appropriate to comment further while legal action was underway. 

In another submission to the inquiry, an academic expert with 28 years' experience in the field of contamination stressed the scope of the problem was much larger than Defence sites. 

Professor Robert Niven, from the University of NSW Canberra, pointed out that commercial airports, firefighting facilities, fuel refineries, ports, fuel storage depots, chemical manufacturing plants, oil or gas extraction facilities, landfills and wastewater treatment plants were likely to be affected. 

Any location where a large fuel or chemical fire had occurred in the past half century should also be investigated, he said. 

"Concerned residents in the vicinity of such sites should immediately seek such investigations," Professor Niven said. 

"The fact that such a national initiative is not prominent in the media suggests either that these investigations are being conducted covertly, or conducted on an ad hoc basis, or alternatively that there is deliberate inaction by Commonwealth and state governments." 

In its submission, the Turnbull government argued that regulation and coordination had improved with the formation of a PFAS taskforce and inter-departmental committee, based within the Department of Environment. 

All states and territories - except for Western Australia - had now signed an inter-governmental agreement to respond to the problem. 

The federal government's submission did not address why Australia had not joined 171 other countries in banning the most toxic in the PFAS family of chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate or PFOS.