2021 March: Moorebank Logistics Park/Georges River (New South Wales). Sediment

‘Sinister stuff’: Worries remain over Moorebank’s toxic PFAS chemicals

March 21 2021


Residents opposed to the development of one of Australia’s largest freight hubs say the site requires long-term monitoring and possible intervention to prevent toxic chemicals leaching into the nearby Georges River.

The Moorebank Logistics Park, capable of handling a million standard shipping containers a year, sits on former Defence land on Sydney’s south-west where the military used a range of chemicals.

These include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, a diverse group of persistent compounds that were used in firefighting.

PFAS use was formally banned in NSW earlier this month due to concerns about how they can accumulate in blood and organs. The federal government has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to exposed communities near military bases in the Northern Territory, NSW, Queensland and elsewhere.

The Moorebank site’s long-term environmental plan states that groundwater and surface monitoring of PFAS levels will be undertaken during and after construction works “to assess effects of redevelopment on PFAS mass flux to the Georges River” to inform appropriate mitigation measures.

While risks to human health at the worksite were deemed “low and acceptable”, the bio-accumulation and the effects on
higher order ecological consumers “were unable to be excluded”, the report said. It also detailed “a potential health risk to children who consume more than two serves of fish per month sourced from the Georges River”.

Sharyn Cullis, secretary of the Georges River Environmental Alliance, said developers were relying on 1.6 million cubic metres of soil brought in to bury the PFAS-contaminated ground with two metres of cover.

Ms Cullis said the groundwater flows mean “the sinister stuff” would continue to migrate towards and into the Georges River without intervention by the developers, Qube Holdings, Australia’s largest logistics operator.

“Nobody’s considered people use this area for primary recreation,” Ms Cullis said as she stood by a riverside bike track near the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre. “What happens when the PFAS plume is in the water?”

A spokesman for the Moorebank Intermodal Company, the federal government-owned entity set up to oversee the hub’s development, did not say how much PFAS was contained on-site but stressed that “no part of the Moorebank Precinct is a declared Contaminate Site under relevant state legislation”.

“The site has been extensively assessed over the last six years, confirming its suitability for commercial and industrial uses,” he said, adding there were currently 11 active groundwater monitoring wells in the biodiversity area adjacent to the Georges River.

The spokesman also said it was up to the state government to identify PFAS-related fishing risks, pointing to a website that lists them. They list “precautionary dietary advice” for people who regularly catch and eat dusky flathead, Australian salmon, sea mullet and five other species.

A visit by the Sun-Herald found confusing public signage at the popular Chipping North lake region, with signs outlining bag limits located beside older signs warning against eating fish or shellfish. PFAS did not appear to be named as a threat.

Liverpool Council declined to comment on the Moorebank project, citing the fact it was a state significant development.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment said the developer was required to implement plans for remediation, contamination and long-term environmental management. An auditor accredited by the Environment Protection Authority would oversee the remediation, she said.

But Ms Cullis said “the whole system depends on trusting the applicant’s information…The auditor does not do any spot testing of any data, as far as I can ascertain”.

John Anderson, a nearby resident who has a monitoring well within metres of his home, said he had not seen local warnings about PFAS and “the EPA has never attended any of the meetings” he has been at.

“It comes down to a lack of regard for the environment by both the federal and state governments,” Mr Anderson said.

The Moorebank spokesman said the soil brought to cap the PFAS were “suitable for uses such as back-yard vegetable growing and on playing fields”. Critics say the developer should state whether they contain any contamination.

An EPA spokeswoman said the development consent limits the imported fill material to be “virgin excavated natural material” or other material approved by the EPA in writing. The Planning Department has reponsibility for compliance, she said.