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.”