2018 December – Salisbury Council/Kaurna Park Wetlands (South Australia) – PFAS

Salisbury Council considers seeking compensation over PFAS contamination (Dec 12 2018)


Salisbury Council is considering seeking compensation from the Federal Government after two of its wetlands were contaminated by run-off from the nearby Edinburgh Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base.

Key points:

  • A Department of Defence report finds significant levels of PFAS on the Edinburgh RAAF
  • Salisbury Council hasn’t been able to sell water from wetlands near the base for two years
  • It is considering seeking compensation from the Federal Government

It comes a day after the Defence Department confirmed significant levels of poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — a chemical once used in some firefighting foams — had been found on the base and in surrounding aquifers in Adelaide’s northern suburbs.

Mayor Gillian Aldridge said independent testing found low levels of PFAS in the Kaurna Park Wetlands two years ago.

“The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and SA Health suggested as a precaution we close [the wetlands] down,” she said.

“We did that two years ago and they are still closed.”

Salisbury has 50 wetlands and they are a major money-spinner for the council.

Water harvested from them is sold to local industry and agriculture.

The two closed wetlands were among the council’s largest and Ms Aldridge said it was a scramble to get water out of its other resources to supply customers.

“It wasn’t easy to do in the beginning, we obviously had to look around to supply it, but it’s been done now,” she said.

“Compensation is a live issue for us here in Salisbury … it absolutely cost us money.”

Last week, a parliamentary inquiry into how the Defence Department had handled PFAS contamination recommended compensation for people whose livelihoods had been affected.

Chairman Andrew Laming said it had caused mental anguish and economic hardship.

“Property owners in PFAS contaminated areas have suffered demonstrable and quantifiable financial losses,” the Liberal MP said.

“We’ve found a case for compensation … it shouldn’t take years of campaigning before [residents] can have a sense their concerns have been adequately addressed.”

PFAS contamination from air force bases has been particularly contentious interstate.

The Northern Territory town of Katherine had its pool shut down last year after PFAS contamination was detected.

In the contamination zone around Williamtown base in NSW, a group of residents was advised not to use bore, surface or groundwater for any purpose.

SA Health said unlike the Northern Territory or eastern states, there had been no contamination of aquifers used for agriculture or human consumption in Adelaide.

Defence Department PFAS investigation and management spokesman Luke McLeod said the contaminated aquifers in South Australia posed little practical risk to the public.

“What we’ve found is that there’s no-one actually using water out of those aquifers for drinking purposes or for any commercial food production,” he said.

People have been warned not to eat yabbies or fish caught in the Kaurna Park Wetlands.

Potential human and environmental impacts

PFAS has a multitude of industrial uses, such as in fabric protectors, non-stick frypans and fast-food wrappers.

University of Adelaide environmental health researcher Dino Pisaniello said PFAS was very stable, which was why it was used in firefighting foam.

“Particularly for military fuel fires, they would use the PFAS to smother the fire,” Professor Pisaniello said.

“Because it’s so inert there’d be few other problems apart from the fire itself — that’s why it was used extensively in military applications.” 

After concerns were raised about the potential for human and environmental impacts, the Defence Department started to phase out PFAS in 2004 — too late to stop contamination of surrounding groundwater supplies from run-off.

“It [PFAS] is persistent in the environment, which is part of the problem,” Professor Pisaniello said.

“Part of the controversy is that Defence was advised in the 1980s to contain their run off on the base … that lack of control from firefighting activities is why it’s now more widely spread.”

Unlike asbestos or tobacco, which have proven links to diseases like cancer, no proof that PFAS exposure makes you sick has been demonstrated.

“We’ve seen widespread use of this product since the 1970s,” Professor Pisaniello said.

“Would we have seen cancers that might have been caused by this product? Probably, yes we would have.”

‘It needs a public health response’

But Professor Pisaniello said the lack of a clear link was far from the notion that PFAS did not increase the risk of developing a disease or illness.

“There is some evidence … some of the work that has been done in communities around the [PFAS] plants suggests there is an elevated risk,” he said.

“But when people have reviewed this and considered all the contributing factors, they haven’t been able to come to a firm conclusion about whether it was the cause of the elevated risk or not.”It needs a public health response, avoid exposure and contain it.”

Professor Pisaniello said a long-term study was needed of people with high PFAS exposure to definitively answer what risk, if any, PFAS posed to human health.

Interestingly, Professor Pisaniello also teaches military doctors at the Edinburgh RAAF base about the substance.

He takes two cans of the fabric protector “Scotchgard” to class with him — a 15-year-old one containing PFAS and a new one made without it.

It is a demonstration of the chemical’s widespread use and the likelihood that most people have been exposed.

And he also uses his own family to personalise his answer to questions of risk.

“Would I be concerned about my three-year-old granddaughter playing on a lounge chair treated with the old Scotchgard … I think the answer would be no … but when it comes to water, I wouldn’t want my three-year-old drinking it, even with relatively low levels of contamination,” he said.