Claims PFAS investigation into contamination at Darwin Airport blocked
The Northern Territory’s Environment Protection Authority (NTEPA) says it has been prevented from investigating serious allegations about PFAS contamination at Darwin Airport.
PFAS chemicals were previously used in firefighting foams because of their superior suppression capabilities.
But in 2010, increasing health and environmental concerns led AirServices Australia, which provides firefighting services, to switch to a PFAS-free foam at all airports, except Townsville and Darwin.
Earlier this year, former Darwin firefighter Matt Shedden told the NTEPA that foams containing PFAS had been inappropriately discharged at Darwin Airport, including into a drain that led to the Rapid Creek catchment area, over a number of years.
“Rather than removing that appropriately, it was covertly dumped into the environment,” Mr Shedden told the ABC on Thursday.
PFAS containers on-sold to public: Shedden
He also claimed empty plastic containers that had previously held 1,000 litres of PFAS foam, had been on-sold to the public until 2010.
“These containers, rather than being dealt with as environmental waste, they were actually being sold off to the community, for the community to store water in,” he said.
“So my concern … is that if people are using these totes, in particular in the immediate years after they were sold, they were being exposed to this PFAS foam.”
The NTEPA launched an investigation into Mr Shedden’s claims, but its probe has hit a roadblock.
While the Defence Department allowed the NT environmental watchdog to conduct investigations on its side of the airport, the NTEPA said it did not receive the same cooperation from the federal regulator of the civilian side of the airport.
“We’ve attempted to gain access to the fire station at the civilian side of the airport to investigate the matter, and to talk or interview a number of officers from AirServices Australia, but have been prevented for one reason or another,” NTEPA director of environmental operations Peter Vasel said.
The federal Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities said it was investigating Mr Shedden’s allegations.
“The department has agreed to share the outcomes of its investigation and other relevant information with the Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority,” a spokesman said.
In a statement, AirServices Australia said it was cooperating with the Department.
“Airservices Australia takes its environmental management responsibilities seriously and is assisting the Department with its investigation on the civilian side of the airport,” the statement read.
“Airservices has also informed NTEPA of its willingness to cooperate with any investigation.”
Calls for national environmental watchdog
“It is frustrating because ordinarily if this allegation was made against a company which was outside Commonwealth land, we’d be investigating it to the full extent,” Mr Vasel said.
“And if the facts came out and the evidence was there that the allegations were proven, quite serious again, we would be instigating prosecutorial proceedings.
“On this occasion we haven’t even gone past the first stage because we’ve been prevented.”
As part of the Northern Territory Government’s submission to a federal parliamentary inquiry into PFAS contamination, the NTEPA said the issue at Darwin Airport highlights a gap in environmental regulation in Australia.
It suggested a national body, similar to the US Environmental Protection Agency, could help overcome issues involving cross-jurisdictional investigation.
The Commonwealth maintains “there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effect”.
But as a precaution, it recommends exposure to PFAS chemicals is minimised.