A pool of poisonous water underneath Sydney Airport contains some of the highest levels of toxic firefighting chemicals seen on Australia’s eastern seaboard, according to test results that were buried from the public after they were handed to authorities six years ago.
The airport at Mascot is one of the highest profile sites in the country to be polluted with the per- and poly-fluoralkyl [PFAS] chemicals, but despite over a decade of testing the extent of the contamination footprint has remained shrouded in secrecy.
But under freedom of information laws the Herald has now obtained a series of confidential reports from Airservices Australia – the government organisation providing firefighting services to airports.
The reports show alarming levels of the contaminants in a body of water underneath the airport known as the Botany Sands Aquifer, which flows from Centennial Park to Botany Bay
The toxins were also discovered at levels exceeding health guidelines in soil at the airport’s former fire training ground. According to the reports, the area had become parkland used by the general public for recreation, a description disputed by airport authorities.
The chemicals – which do not break down in the environment – have been polluting the groundwater since the 1970s.
The readings have sparked fresh health concerns among former Botany residents, who tapped the aquifer’s reserves using backyard bores until the practice was banned by the state government in the early 2000s.
The findings could also complicate the construction of the so-called Sydney Gateway project, a vital road link connecting the airport with the WestConnex motorway at St Peters.
Campaigners against PFAS contamination were angered at the lack of transparency around contamination at the site, which is owned by the Commonwealth but leased to a private operator, Sydney Airport Corporation.
Remediation has not been carried out, even though private industrial polluters have been forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars cleaning up plumes of contaminated groundwater at Botany Industrial Park, a stone’s throw from the airport.
The clean-up bill for the most notorious polluter, Orica, has topped $165 million.
The president of the Coalition against PFAS, Lindsay Clout, was scathing of the Commonwealth’s actions.
“How will they justify the hypocrisy of forcing the private sector to clean up their toxic mess in the middle of one of Australia’s largest urban and industrial areas while one kilometre down the road they’ve been keeping their own toxic plume hidden from the public?” he said.
“Our message for Mascot residents and businesses looking for answers from the government regarding health risks, clean-up and compensation is climb aboard the bureaucratic roundabout that regional communities like Williamtown have been on for over three years.”
A Sydney Airport Corporation spokesperson pointed out the contamination of the airport was a matter of public record and had been reported in the media.
“The existence of PFAS at Sydney Airport is identified in our Airport Environment Strategy 2019 – 2024 and by Airservices Australia on its website and in its submission to the 2016 senate inquiry,” the spokesperson said.
An Airservices Australia spokesperson also defended its handling of the contamination investigation, saying it had shared the results with the NSW Environment Protection Authority and Sydney Airport Corporation in 2012.
“An off-the-shelf remediation solution for PFAS contamination does not exist,” the spokesperson said. “We are leading a number of research and development projects to find a viable, robust remediation solution.”
The airport had rolled out management actions to prevent the potential migration of PFAS. This included applying sealant to contaminated concrete pads, and “considering” the re-lining of drainage pipes.
Airservices’ investigations into all of its sites were still underway, with the results expected to be published on its website by mid-2019, the spokesperson said
In contrast, Defence has already spent over $100 million on the remediation of a PFAS plume at its Williamtown air force base, near Newcastle.
At Williamtown, residents have spent years stranded on properties heavily polluted with PFAS. The Morrison government is defending multiple class actions, as it refuses to compensate households that can’t obtain bank loans and have seen property values in freefall.
The federal government denies the chemicals cause health effects in humans.
In contrast the US government has deemed the chemicals a human health hazard linked to high cholesterol, low birth weight, immune suppression, hormonal disruption and some kinds of cancer.
Manufacturer 3M used the chemicals as the key ingredient in popular stain repellent Scotchguard until it discontinued their production in 2000. Also used in firefighting foam, the toxins have contaminated dozens of industrial sites, ports and fire stations across the country.
Fighting fire with fire
Cars whirr over General Holmes Drive in the distance and every few minutes an airliner thunders overhead.
But Sydney Airport’s Engine Pond seems strangely serene at dusk, flanked by large pine trees, its banks overgrown.
All that is left of the former fire training ground beside it is grassy open space, marked by a strip of concrete and a pile of sandstone blocks.
Between the 1970s and the mid-1990s the land was a hive of activity, as the Civil Aviation Authority – then in charge of firefighting – along with police and airline companies used the site for live firefighting training up to four times a week
A mock plane was set ablaze and smothered with the toxic foam, the runoff soaking into the soil or draining into the Engine Pond.
By the late 1990s fire training at the site was abandoned. In 2000, Airservices Australia took over responsibility for firefighting. It ran training exercises from a new facility near the airport’s north-south runway, which juts into Botany Bay.
One of the first investigations into possible legacy contamination was carried out in 2005, with Environmental Resources Management Australia reviewing the literature and describing the 3M foam as “practically non toxic” and “relatively harmless”.
The consultancy did not test for PFAS chemicals at either of the training grounds, but concluded the impact of the foam was likely to be low.
When another consultancy, GHD, was asked to carry out a preliminary investigation in 2008, it was not permitted to do any water or soil sampling or to access the existing test results on file.
Robert Niven, an expert in sampling for environmental contaminants and a professor from the University of NSW, was perplexed at the decision.
“What did they do if they could not sample?” he said.
The report featured historic aerial photographs of the site and interviews with airport staff.
In a series of recommendations, GHD asked that it be allowed to review the existing water monitoring results and carry out its own targeted sampling.
But the issue was not revisited until 2012, when global scientific consultancy AECOM completed a site investigation and human health risk assessment.
The results provided the first real picture of the spread of the toxins.
‘That’s not the way it should happen’
AECOM found extremely high levels of the contaminants in the groundwater underneath the former fire training ground, over a decade since it had been used.
The maximum reading for PFOS was 2820 micrograms per litre. The result was thousands of times over the safe level for the chemical in drinking water and recreational water, at .07 and .7 micrograms per litre respectively.
The readings were taken less than a kilometre from suburban streets in neighbouring Botany, where groundwater from the Botany Sands Aquifer was historically used to fill swimming pools and water vegetable gardens.
The state government banned the use of household bores from 2003, amid a storm of controversy about carcinogens seeping into the water table from the nearby Orica site. Factories were still allowed to use groundwater, as long as it was sampled on an annual basis.
There was no public awareness at the time of the risk posed by PFAS chemicals, despite their decades of use at the airport.
RMIT University academic and former Botany environmental campaigner Joan Staples said there had been hundreds of illegal bores dug by residents in the 1990s and early 2000s, as severe drought stretched Sydney’s water supplies.
“Botany is a working-class suburb with the most wonderful people who did their own thing,” she said. “If they needed to help one another, they would help one another. If they needed water they would dig for it.
“The government needed to give a moratorium on prosecuting people because they realised that the health issues were too huge.”
Ms Staples argued it was essential any PFAS plume was “actively treated” before it reached Botany Bay, as was required of Orica.
“The main reason that Orica reacted was because of an enormous amount of work done by residents to insist that it should happen,” she said. “That’s not the way it should happen. We need to be able to trust our regulatory bodies to protect us.”
Greg Killeen, a resident of Botany for 40 years, had a string of unanswered questions.
“How deep is the contamination? How far widespread is it? What are the short and long term implications?” he said.
Professor Niven described the levels of the contaminants in the groundwater as “very alarming”, calling for an “immediate, high profile and publicly available investigation”.
He expressed concern the historic reports had been withheld from the public.
“Depending on where the plume actually goes, this could have serious implications for downgradient local residents, land users and the foreshore environment of Botany Bay – and could have done so for decades,” Professor Niven said.
What lies beneath
As they set about sampling in 2012, AECOM’s scientists noted that the airport’s former fire training ground and its surrounds were being used “for recreational open space in the form of walking tracks and parkland” and was open “to the public including children and animals”.
The area had also been earmarked for a kennel for Australian Federal Police sniffer dogs.
Three soil samples at the former fire training ground exceeded health guidelines. The maximum was 4.21 mg/kg, nearly four times the safe level of 1.1 mg/kg for soil in public open space.
The levels were high enough that they would “preclude use of the site for recreational land use”, the report stated.
It noted the site had historically been used as a tannery and a landfill, activities that often leave a legacy of toxic waste. Asbestos-containing materials and slag had been found at the site’s southern end.
When asked if the pollution had been cleaned up before the site was turned into “recreational area”, a spokesperson for Sydney Airport Corporation rejected that description.
“The former fire training ground is not a public recreation park and continues to be monitored by Airservices Australia and Sydney Airport,” she said.
“We continue to work closely with the Commonwealth government, Airservices Australia and key stakeholders to manage and address PFAS on the airport.”
When the Herald visited the former training ground, it was accessible to the public via Ross Smith Avenue.
The only sign of anything amiss was a series of signs around the neighbouring Engine Pond, warning against fishing, swimming or feeding the birds.
A large man-made mound, with some temporary fencing around it, stood between the former training ground and a car park, children’s play area, walking tracks and a car rental business.
AECOM’s Human Health Risk Assessment found there was a “moderate but acceptable risk” to members of the general public visiting the former fire training ground, people using waterways in the area for fishing and recreation and to the airport’s commercial and construction workers.
An “unacceptable” risk existed for construction workers who had skin contact with the groundwater under the former fire training ground.
Bowman MP Andrew Laming says the delays and inadequacies in finding justice have done “enormous damage” to those who have bought or have properties that have been contaminated with PFAS.
The risk assessment did not take into account perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS), which has since become one of the main chemicals of concern.
The Airservices Australia spokesperson said it had clear procedures for construction workers operating on its sites, including use of personal protective equipment and “stringent” hygiene practices.
“With regards to works on the airport, a contamination assessment is conducted by an environmental specialist for each project … appropriate safety processes are put in place,” a Sydney Airport spokesperson said, adding that the plans required Commonwealth approval.
Bound for Botany Bay
The new fire training ground lies on a strip of inaccessible airport land, with PFOS detected in the groundwater underneath at a maximum of 187 micrograms per litre.
The groundwater was expected to be “hydraulically connected to the water of Botany Bay”, the report noted.
PFAS chemicals were also discovered – albeit at lower levels – in surface waterways snaking around the area, including the Engine Pond and Mill Stream, as well as several species of fish.
The report warned there was “insufficient information” to determine if Australia had breached its legal obligations due to contamination in the Engine Pond, which was a “significant wetland” protected by Commonwealth migratory bird treaties with Japan and China.
While fishing was banned at the time of the 2012 investigation, AECOM’s scientists noticed “numerous” members of the public casting lines into Mill Stream and Botany Bay.
A risk assessment found the general public would not be harmed sourcing about 10 per cent of their fish from the contaminated waterways, when eating about 200 grams three times a week.
“If people are consuming more fish from the site … there is potential that the risks may be higher than has been calculated,” the report said.
A spokesperson for the NSW EPA said it had been investigating PFAS in and around Botany Bay for over two years.
“This has resulted in dietary advice being issued for the Botany Bay area to reduce the community’s exposure to PFAS,” the spokesperson said. “Additionally, residents with registered bores in the relevant areas have been provided with general advice on bore usage.”
While the EPA was notified of the airport contamination in 2010, it did not have any regulatory jurisdiction because the airport was on Commonwealth land, the spokesperson said.
The federal Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities is the airport’s regulator, but referred the Herald’s inquiries back to the airport’s private operator.
The findings could complicate the government’s timetable for building the so-called Sydney Gateway project, a series of roads linking the WestConnex motorway at St Peters to Sydney Airport.
Costs for the project have ballooned to $2.6 billion, and building new major roads in the airport area is notoriously difficult.
A spokesperson for the RMS said it was managing the PFAS issue and the design of the proposed Sydney Gateway was being developed to “minimise environmental impacts”.
“Roads and Maritime Services is carrying out early environmental assessments to inform the future Environmental Impact Statement,” the spokesperson said. “The information gathered will inform the final road design and proposed construction methodology.”