Troubled water: PFAS pollution found downstream from Ipswich dump
Nov 4 2019
Queensland’s Environment Department is investigating waste giant Cleanaway after the discovery of PFAS contamination in ground and surface water at and around its landfill site in a former coal pit at New Chum in Ipswich.
Brisbane Times has learnt that the department will this week order the company to commission a full independent probe into the source and extent of the pollution after it was found in water in Six Mile Creek more than two kilometres from the landfill as well as in monitoring bores around the site.
A department spokesman said the notice would “require Cleanaway to investigate the source, cause and extent of PFAS contamination and its potential to impact on the nearby environment”.
The company faces a fine of up to $200,000 if it fails to comply.
Cleanaway stressed that the chemicals had been found in concentrations within limits for recreational and drinking water and that PFAS had been found in waterways upstream of its site. The department also played down the impact, saying “surface water in the area is not known to be used for drinking”.
However, neither the company nor the department addressed questions about the use of water from Six Mile Creek for irrigation at a community garden at Riverview, where dozens of immigrant families have for years grown vegetables for their own consumption over about 12 hectares.
The garden relies on water pumped from Six Mile Creek just metres from one of the sites where PFAS was found by Cleanaway’s environmental consultants.
PFAS stands for a group of chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, manufactured chemicals used in products that resist heat, oil, stains and water, including common household items.
PFAS exposure can cause cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and an increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
These chemicals are known to accumulate in plants and animals.
People using the community gardens at Riverview on Monday said they had not been told about contamination of the creek water.
Resident Alma Ladiye, who grows corn, cassava and leafy vegetables for her family on a small plot at the gardens, said users prided themselves on the quality of their produce and the fact they did not use chemicals to help them grow.
“It’s all organic and we feel like we are eating healthy food,” she said.
An Environment spokesman said the department had begun investigating after being advised by Cleanaway that PFAS had been detected, the result of testing of underground and surface water around the site done in June.
The spokesman said Cleanaway was “continuing to conduct ground and surface water sampling, including biota sampling (from plants and animals) from Six Mile Creek”.
It is the latest in a string of controversies for Cleanaway’s waste processing facilities in Queensland, which have been a favoured destination for waste trafficked across the border from NSW.
‘Recycling’ was rubbish
In 2018 Brisbane Times revealed how the company was taking in thousands of tonnes of construction waste from NSW each week for “recycling” but no actual recycling was taking place, with the waste being taken immediately for burial at New Chum.
The company said it was “in full compliance with its licence obligations and intends to fully comply with any additional requirements from the Department of Environment and Science”.
A spokesman said: “We have been working collaboratively with DES to monitor local environmental influences and continue to do so.”
The Queensland government imposed waste levies from July 2019 in a bid to clamp down on the interstate trade and encourage recycling. However, the move coincided with a growing national waste crisis prompted by a ban by China on waste imports, which has put renewed pressure on landfills.
The enforcement action against Cleanaway comes days after lawyers announced what is likely to be Australia’s largest-ever class action as up to 40,000 people gear up to sue the federal government over PFAS contamination at a range of sites across the nation.
Last month there were calls for blood tests of thousands of people who live near the Amberley RAAF base just a few kilometres away from New Chum, which is known to have been a source of PFAS contamination.
Ipswich City Council, which last week rejected an application to expand the New Chum dump on environmental grounds, referred questions about PFAS to the Department of Defence.
In rejecting Cleanaway’s application to expand New Chum, the council did not mention PFAS but cited doubts about Cleanaway’s ability to prevent the escape of polluted water into the local environment.
Council engineers found Cleanaway’s proposal had “not taken into account the environmental impacts of the proposal both now and in the future and does not encourage a transition to sustainable waste management”.
They warned of the risk of leachate from the dump escaping during heavy rain and said Cleanaway had “not demonstrated that it will minimise or prevent adverse effects on the natural environment with respect to soil degradation, air pollution and water pollution”.
“The proposal has not adequately demonstrated that it is located, designed, constructed and could be operated to avoid or minimise adverse impacts on receiving waters,” they wrote.
A Cleanaway spokesman said the company was disappointed with the decision to reject its expansion proposal and that it intended to appeal.
All too late for IRATE
Local activists have campaigned for years over the environmental impact of dump sites in Ipswich and against their further expansion.
Geoff Yarham, secretary of Ipswich Residents Against Toxic Environments (IRATE), welcomed the council’s decision to block expansion of the dump and the action by the Environment Department over PFAS but said it had all come too late.
“The fact that DES is doing something is a positive step,” he said.
“But they [Cleanaway] shouldn’t have contaminated it in the first place.”
Correspondence obtained by IRATE shows State Development was pursuing Cleanaway for missing information about PFAS at the New Chum site as early as December 2018.
Mr Yarham also questioned why the department had issued Cleanaway with a new environmental approval in September despite knowing about the PFAS contamination.
An Environment spokesman said it had “carefully considered the geotechnical impact of the proposed extension” in approving the authority, which would be “subject to strict conditions to ensure the protection of the environment”.
The former Ipswich council was accused of being too close to dump operators, which have exploited the archipelago of disused open-cut coal mine voids around the city for landfill and other waste-related activities.
The entire council was sacked by the state government in August 2018 amid widespread allegations of corruption and maladministration.