Food and water poisoned by toxic foam near Amberley
November 26 2018
Toxic firefighting foam washed off aircraft at RAAF Base Amberley for decades has contaminated eggs from domestic chickens grazing on nearby farms and fish from nearby rivers, the Department of Defence has confirmed in a major report.
RAAF Base Amberley has been one of Australia’s most important air bases for 60 years, housing its strike fighter aircraft.
It is a five-minute drive to Ipswich, which also sits on the Bremer River. Both Bremer River and Warrill Creek, where the fish were found, are used for irrigation and stock watering.
Sections of RAAF Base Amberley flooded in 1974, 2011 and 2013 and the flood extended downstream of the base, “especially throughout the urban areas of Ipswich”.
PFAS chemicals are a group of man-made chemicals used since the 1940s to manufacture products like non-slip substances through to firefighting foams at airports.
The November 2018 RAAF Base Amberly report found:
- “The highest concentrations of PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) in surface water and sediment occur east and south of the base and relate to PFAS in surface water and groundwater discharged from the base in these directions.”
- “PFOS + PFHS ( a sub-group of these chemicals) has been found to consistently exceed drinking-water guidelines and recreational guidelines east and south of the base, and down‐stream of the base.”
- “PFOS has been found to exceed ecological guidelines in these areas. PFAS has been found in surface water downstream of the confluence of the Bremer River and Warrill Creek to the boundary of the (study area) with concentrations that exceed drinking water and ecological guidelines.”
Defence was studying the impacts of the PFAS levels found in the streams and groundwater on humans and results would be published in the first quarter of 2019, it confirmed.
More detailed tests on fish in the Bremer River by the Department of Defence have not yet been finished, but tests earlier this year found “PFAS concentrations found in the fish exceeded the Food Standards Australia New Zealand trigger levels”.
Fish caught in the Bremer River and Warrill Creek still cannot be eaten, according to Queensland Health, on advice from Defence.
Queensland’s Environment and Science Department also confirmed the study of the “human impact” of the toxic firefighting foam coming from RAAF Base Amberley would be finished by early 2019.
The toxic firefighting foam was found at above drinking-water standards at both the Bremer River and Warrill Creek beside the air base.
In June, News Corp reported the Department of Defence buried “thousands of tonnes of soil and sludge” containing the toxic foam about 30 metres from Warrill Creek.
Research by the Department of Defence revealed the major problem in a detailed environmental consultants’ report issued this month.
The report, which began in 2016, identifies the sources of PFAS on the base itself and off the base. This section also reveals nearby fire stations as off-base sources of the firefighting foam.
The complex two-year study has completed soil, groundwater and river studies. All these studies find some zones where “very high” levels of the toxic chemicals breach national guidelines and other areas where guidelines are not breached.
It raises concerns at high levels of PFAS found near Walloon (north-east) and in the south-east towards the Ipswich suburbs of Leichhardt, Wulkuraka, One Mile and Yamanto.
Ipswich residents were informed at a public meeting on November 14 about the results from more than 428 counts at groundwater locations, on-base locations and off-base locations.
Ipswich City Council said it was aware of the study’s findings and that some residents were cautiously nervous. It helped erect “Don’t Eat Fish” signs in July and was waiting on research from Defence.
The report, RAAF Base Amberley PFAS: Detailed Site Investigation, is the first investigation of the problem revealed by Brisbane Times in 2015.
In a detailed, two-page reply to Brisbane Times about the report, the Department of Defence confirmed there were serious concerns about eating domestic chicken eggs and that fish from the Bremer River or Warrill Creek should not be eaten.
“Potentially elevated exposure risks have been identified in some areas associated with consuming eggs from domestic chickens and fish caught from Warrill Creek or the Bremer River,” it said.
“Based on an assessment of the results, Queensland Health advised the community in June 2018 not to consume fish caught in the Investigation Area. This advice applies to fish caught in the Bremer River and Warrill Creek near RAAF Base Amberley.
“This interim advice currently remains in place and is a precautionary approach to minimise potential PFAS exposure until further testing and analysis is completed.”
Queensland Health said it had not received any further results from the October 2018 testing of fish in the Bremer River and Warrill Creek from the Department of Defence.
“Queensland Health is not aware of any further testing for PFAS being undertaken by the Department of Defence in Warrill Creek or the Bremer River, but Queensland Health and the Department of Environment and Science have requested that this be undertaken,” the department said in a statement.
Health Minister Steven Miles told State Parliament earlier this month that a bill he introduced to the house would force authorities to promptly warn the public of health concerns from pollution.
The legislation, yet to pass the House, would give Queensland’s Chief Health Officer the right and power to name, shame and fine polluters $21,110.
“Both in my time as environment minister and now as health minister I have been concerned to see the number of pollution events in Queensland where the polluter has flat out refused to inform the public,” Mr Miles said.
“Most recently we have seen a number of incidents of contamination of waterways from PFAS, a compound used in firefighting foams.
“This bill will ensure that the party responsible for causing the pollution must take responsibility for notifying the public of the health risks.”
The Department of Defence held a community information session on November 14 to update the Ipswich community on its preliminary findings.
“Preliminary findings indicate low and acceptable exposure risks associated with incidental contact with soil, sediment, surface water and groundwater, swimming in waterways and consumption of home-grown fruit and vegetables,” it said in a statement.