Why Toowoomba council is suing the federal government over water
Dec 7 2018
The story behind a Supreme Court fight pitting a Queensland council and the federal government against each other over water safety begins decades ago, court documents show.
Toowoomba Regional Council links its legal action over contamination from toxic firefighting foams to water sourced from Oakey since the drought in the mid-2000s and water from underground bores dug since 1950.
The Department of Defence in 2014 issued public statements warning residents not to drink water from underground water near the Oakey Army Base because the water had been impacted by perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contained in firefighting foams used there.
Documents lodged in Brisbane’s Supreme Court to support the council’s negligence claim show the council commissioned the Oakey Water Treatment Plant to treat water from council bores.
They show between 65 per cent of Toowoomba’s water was treated at the plant between October 2008 and November 2012.
Before 2008, the council sourced water from underground bores dug in what was then the Jondaryan shire, which contained Oakey, from as early as 1950, according to the documents.
They show the 840-hectare Oakey Army Aviation Centre sits over the top of a major aquifer to the Great Artesian Basin, which is re-charged by Oakey Creek.
The council alleges the Department of Defence ran fire drills, firefighter training, mock emergency aircraft landings and accident drills at Oakey Air Base from 1970.
On July 29, 2014, the Commonwealth issued a flyer in Oakey warning groundwater had been impacted by firefighting foams used between 1970 and 2005.
In that flyer, the Department of Defence recommended landholders “not use any water sourced from underground bores on their property”.
Defence staff used Aqueous Film Forming Foam, which contains some perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, at Oakey.
The council alleges AFFF foams were used at Oakey Army Base between 1977 and 2011.
The documents say until 1989-90 the foam was “discharged to bare ground” at an unlined fire pit and that after 1989-90, the fire-fighting foam was released “through bungs in a concrete slab” to the bare ground.
In many cases the fire-fighting material was released daily, the court documents state.
Toowoomba Regional Council argues the Department of Defence should have known the material percolated into the groundwater and then into the aquifer tapped by bores used by the council.
It argues the Commonwealth should have known chemicals within the firefighting foams used on the base were harmful to the environment and could be harmful to humans.
The Department of Defence in November released a report about PFAS contamination from RAAF Base Amberley, just kilometres from the Ipswich CBD.
Ipswich City Council administrator Greg Chemello declined to comment on Toowoomba’s actions.
The Amberley airbase study has found PFAS contamination from perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS) is above drinking water standards in the Bremer River and Warrill Creek and had contaminated eggs from domestic chickens on close properties.
Those two streams flow through Ipswich suburbs and the Bremer River through the city’s CBD towards Brisbane.
A Defence report on the impacts of people living in and around Ipswich will be finalised in first quarter 2019.