Defence dumped toxic soil close to creek
June 25 2018
Defence dumped thousands of tonnes of soil from an RAAF base, contaminated with firefighting chemicals, beside a creek where fish are now being found to have dangerous levels of the toxins.
The soil and sludge was dug up during construction work on the Amberley air base, west of Brisbane, and buried less than 30m from Warrill Creek — a major irrigation source for farmers.
Satellite imagery from January and February last year, obtained by The Australian, shows the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)-laced material being trucked to a site just inside the base’s fence line.
The football-field-sized dump site was then covered with top soil and turfed just weeks before it was drenched with record rainfall from Cyclone Debbie that caused localised flooding.
At the time, Defence knew Amberley was widely contaminated from firefighting foam, with the cancer-linked PFAS chemicals found in all underground and surface water tests conducted on the base in 2016.
Queensland Health this month issued an alert not to eat fish caught in Warrill Creek and nearby Bremer River — which are connected — after tests found they were highly contaminated with PFAS. Defence has denied the site was a PFAS “dump’’.
It said the material had been tested for PFAS and found to be “below the threshold of risk to human health’’ under state and federal guidelines.
“The material has been reused for flood mitigation purposes at RAAF Base Amberley,’’ Defence said about the site, which now sits as a low flattened mound.
The revelations come after the release last week of a major US Department of Health report warning the chemicals were more toxic than previous public research had concluded. It found PFAS chemicals — also linked to immune suppression and fertility problems — posed a health threat in concentrations up to 10 times lower than had guided US and Australian governments.
Use of the firefighting foam was phased out a decade ago and there had been several official inquiries showing contamination around the 18 RAAF bases that had used the material since 1970.
Despite the emerging evidence of the health risks and contamination, an ongoing investigation by The Australian has revealed mishandling of PFAS-contaminated material from Amberley.
Defence last year handed over almost 1 million litres of PFAS-contaminated water to a waste disposal company for use in compost that state regulators allege breached environmental standards.
Subcontractors have also told The Australian that they trucked tonnes of “vac sludge’’ — which Queensland’s Department of Environment now suspects was PFAS-contaminated — that was deposited on private properties.
When The Australian visited properties around Amberley last week, locals said water was widely used from the Warrill Creek system for agricultural purposes, including irrigation and to water livestock.
The residents, who asked not to be named for fear of their property values being affected, said Defence had given them no specific advice about whether to use Warrill Creek water.
Defence testing was being carried out this month, with locals saying everything from the figs in the trees to guavas on the banks of the creek were being looked at.
Preliminary test results undertaken on one of the nearby properties by Defence and seen by The Australian showed the presence of PFAS in bore water and in soil.
Mark Taylor, professor of environmental science at Macquarie University in Sydney, yesterday said PFAS was not only toxic but “highly mobile in soil and water systems’’.
Professor Taylor, who last year wrote a report into PFAS for the NSW government, said: “These actions unnecessarily put downstream users of waters draining past the site at further unnecessary risk.”