2020/22: Port Pirie Smelter (South Australia). PFAS detected in groundwater

EPA to renew Port Pirie smelter licence as board plans visit, following contamination findings


South Australia’s Environment Protection Authority has confirmed the operator of Port Pirie’s lead smelter, Nyrstar, will have its licence renewed in July, as the authority continues to assess data on contamination around the site.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) board will next week hold its first meeting in Port Pirie since Nyrstar’s licence was renewed last year.

EPA chief executive Tony Circelli said it was an opportunity to hear directly from Nyrstar officials and community stakeholders.

“[The board’s] key interest is to make sure the environmental impact is minimised as much as possible,” Mr Circelli said.

The visit to the smelter will include a bus trip around the site, which Mr Circelli said would not include discussions with floor workers at the facility, but with senior management.

“They will have an opportunity to provide a briefing to the board on the reform agenda that they have been going through and their intentions for the future.”

The second day of the board’s visit will involve a consultation session behind closed doors with local stakeholders including Port Pirie Mayor Leon Stephens and  Stuart MP Geoff Brock.

Mr Circelli said sensitive issues involving the environment and health would be discussed in a private setting.

“[The trip] will give the board an understanding of the issues that we’ve been working with Nyrstar on and if there are changes to the licence then understanding the context around those changes better.

New conditions on the cards

EPA’s manager of compliance and regulatory practice Sophie Martin said the licence renewal process would be influenced by ongoing monitoring and research by her team.

“[That] will determine the conditions of the licence which the EPA is currently considering,” Ms Martin said.

“We have [previously] provided information to the community publicly about the things that the EPA is considering in terms of any updates to licence conditions.

EPA, Nyrstar investigate PFAS contamination in groundwater beneath Port Pirie smelter


Groundwater contaminated with controversial PFAS chemicals has been detected beneath the Port Pirie smelter.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals resistant to heat, oil and water.

They were commonly used in firefighting foams before they were banned in 2018.

PFAS have been at the centre of several high-profile contamination incidents in Australia, including the country’s largest class action lawsuit, which was settled out of court earlier this year.

Smelter operator Nyrstar said it discovered the contamination during routine groundwater testing.

“PFAS chemicals have been identified at a number of sampling bores around the site,” a spokesperson said.

“While PFAS have not proven to cause any specific illnesses in humans, Nyrstar is currently investigating potential PFAS sources on site.”

Report due by February

The South Australian EPA was notified this month and has been working with Nyrstar to assess the extent of the contamination.

In a statement to the ABC, the EPA said it believed the PFAS contamination did not pose a risk to Port Pirie residents.

“There are no registered domestic wells near the smelter site and groundwater in the vicinity is highly saline, making it unsuitable for consumption or irrigation,” it said.

“The EPA requires Nyrstar to provide the groundwater monitoring report associated with the identification of PFAS in groundwater by December 18.

“Nyrstar is also required to engage a contamination consultant to determine the extent of the groundwater contamination and assess any potential risk to human health and the environment.”

A report documenting the results of the investigations must be provided to the EPA by February 26.

Authorities overseas, including the US Environmental Protection Agency, have found PFOA and PFOS chemicals (types of PFAS) can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals.

Despite this, current Federal Government health advice states that “there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects”.

A government-funded epidemiological study into the potential health effects of exposure to PFAS is expected to present a final report by mid 2021.

Council ‘notified quickly’

The Port Pirie Council and local MPs have criticised Nyrstar and the EPA for not alerting the public to environmental incidents after two chemical spills were not revealed at the time.

But Mayor Leon Stephens said the council was notified of the groundwater contamination quickly and he was satisfied with steps being taken.

“We have been made aware of it, both by Nyrstar and the EPA,” he said.

“I’m very happy that the transparency is actually taking place with this … the communication has been good and we’re waiting to see a final explanation of where and why and how.”