2020: Canberra Airport Fire Station (A.C.T.)

PFAS Testing at Canberra Airport


PFAS stands for per and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS is a class of manufactured chemicals used in aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) which were used for firefighting in Australia before 2010.

On Canberra Airport, the only known user of AFFF containing PFAS has been Airservices Australia. These foams were used in airport firefighting services and training.  Airservices Australia is a Commonwealth-owned statutory corporation. Airservices Australia has advised that since 2010, it has ceased its use of PFAS containing fire-fighting foams.

Canberra Airport takes pride in delivering and operating a safe and secure airport. Accordingly, in 2015, when we were first made aware of global concerns about PFAS, Canberra Airport commissioned its own programme of testing for PFAS in soil, stormwater and groundwater across the airport site.

The results of this program of testing have indicated that there are only two significant areas of PFAS pollution at Canberra Airport. These are:

  • Airservices Australia’s Canberra Airport Fire Station (which is on Scherger Drive on the road into Fairbairn)
  • Airservices Australia’s Fire Training Ground (which is on the far side of the main runway and is north of Fairbairn and the Air Traffic Control Tower, where they practice fighting aircraft fires).

These sites have been leased to Airservices Australia by Canberra Airport since the privatisation of the airport in 1998 but were occupied and used by Airservices Australia prior to this.

Canberra Airport testing results for stormwater and groundwater

Canberra Airport has tested the stormwater channels and irrigation bores against criteria for PFAS levels in recreational water even though stormwater and groundwater on the airport is not used for drinking or recreational/swimming purposes. Groundwater is used on the airport site for the flushing of some toilets and to irrigate landscaped areas but there are no PFAS guidance values for the irrigation of landscape.

Canberra Airport’s results have also indicated that PFAS is present in some of the stormwater channels and the irrigation bores downstream of the polluted Airservices Australia sites. Other than sites immediately adjacent to the Airservices Australia PFAS polluted sites, results show no PFAS or PFAS levels below the standard for recreational water. Overall testing shows there is a stark contrast to the level of PFAS pollution on the Airservices Australia sites and downstream of those sites.

We have results in some bores in both Majura Park and Brindabella Park which show PFAS levels slightly above the criteria for recreational purposes. On seven occasions since 2015, Canberra Airport has tested for PFAS at downstream locations off the airport in Woolshed Creek and the Molonglo River and there have been no exceedances of the National Environmental Management Plan draft guidance for recreational water and the Department of Health Food Standards Australia New Zealand final health guidance values for PFAS substances. 

Airservices Australia testing results for PFAS

In November 2016, Airservices Australia wrote to Canberra Airport to advise that a report commissioned by it from consultancy firm Aecom in 2015 had noted that:

  • while the PFAS levels in the soil on its Fire Station Site were above assessment criteria, the pollution plume was very slow moving and would reach the off-site boundary in 290 years;
  • the identified PFAS impact did not preclude ongoing use of the Airport Fire Station; and
  • no immediate on-site actions were required to protect the health of personnel or visitors.

Independent of Canberra Airport’s investigations, on 21 February 2019, Airservices Australia released its own preliminary site investigation report, prepared by Aecom. The Aecom report confirms the high level of PFAS pollution at Airservices Australia’s Canberra Fire Station and Fire Training Ground. For Airservices Australia PFAS enquiries please email: pfascomms@airservicesaustralia.com.

Health impacts

Global research into the potential human health effects of PFAS is ongoing. The Australian Government established an expert health panel to investigate the health impacts of PFAS, which has stated that there “is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects.”

Dr Paul Kelly, the ACT Chief Health Officer, has reviewed an independent investigation of PFAS concentrations in bores in Pialligo and says

  • bore water in Pialligo is not used for human consumption and therefore does not pose a direct risk to human health.
  • PFAS is not absorbed through the skin

Clean-up of Airservices’ PFAS Pollution

Canberra Airport believes PFAS is a contaminant in the environment that clearly needs to be dealt with. Canberra Airport has made numerous representations to Airservices Australia and the Australian Government (the Department of Infrastructure and the Department of Environment) over the last five years, requesting Airservices Australia reduce PFAS pollution at the airport by removing the source of that pollution from its leased sites. Recently, Canberra Airport requested formal remediation orders from the Airport Environment Officer appointed by the Department of Infrastructure to Canberra Airport, to deal with this PFAS pollution. It is our goal for these orders to address PFAS pollution at Airservices Australia leased premises, by quarantining and removing it without further delay.

Formal Remediation Plans by Airservices

Airservices Australia is aware of its PFAS pollution in soil and water at its Fire Training Ground and Canberra Airport Fire Station. We will keep the public informed about plans by Airservices Australia for remediation as they progress.