Environment Protection Authority

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS ( 14:54 ): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before asking the Minister for Water and the River Murray a question regarding EPA water licensing.

Leave granted. 

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS: On 24 May this year, the Department of Defence notified norther suburbs councils of their planned investigation into the potential existence, and the levels of, certain constituents of aqueous film forming foams, which were once commonly used as fire suppressants, in and around RAAF Base Edinburgh. This testing was brought about after public health issues arose from the use of chemicals at RAAF Base Williamtown in New South Wales which are known as perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). 

It was reported recently in The Advertiser that the Salisbury council and its water business unit has switched off its Edinburgh South and Kaurna aquifers as a precaution pending the outcome of the RAAF investigation. The article also stated that while the EPA, and the water licences granted to Salisbury council by it, do not require testing for PFOS or PFOA chemicals, the council is testing for them anyway as a precaution. I praise the council for doing so in the best interests of the public.

  The chemicals that the Department of Defence and the Salisbury council are testing for have been linked to a cancer cluster in Victoria which led to the closure of the Country Fire Authority's Fiskville training centre last year and has led the federal Labor Party to commit to fund 10,000 voluntary blood tests at affected sites and the Coalition government to commit to voluntary blood tests and counselling services if re-elected. 

Given that the local council, the minister's federal colleagues and the federal government have considered the potential for PFOS and PFOA chemical contamination so hazardous that they have taken steps to minimise the public risk, why hasn't the EPA added testing for these chemicals to the Salisbury council's stormwater re-use licences? 

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) ( 14:56 ): I commend the honourable member for his most important and intelligent question, as well as his wonderful pronunciation. 

Perfluorinated compounds are manufactured chemicals that do not occur naturally. They are also sometimes called perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS). Specific types of PFCs include perfluoroctane sulphonate, as the honourable member said, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). I am advised that these chemicals are of emerging concern in Australia and internationally but of largely recent historical times. 

PFCs have been in use since the 1950s in a range of industrial applications, particularly at airports and major hazardous facilities, including refineries, fuel and chemical terminals, and firefighting and training facilities, with the highest proportion of use, I am advised, in firefighting foams for liquid fires. Although not banned, I am advised that they have been largely voluntarily phased out, in this state at least, and replaced by chemicals that break down faster. My advice is that they were phased out by the MFS in 2007.

  In 2010, nine new chemicals, including PFOS, were added to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The Australian government is currently undertaking work to ratify this amendment, I am advised. I understand also that the Australian Department of Defence has been subjected to considerable community and media attention as a result of the identification of PFCs at defence bases, notably at Williamtown in New South Wales and Oakey in Queensland, where it is known that it has migrated to groundwater and nearby water bodies. As a result, Defence has embarked on a national review of its use of PFC-containing firefighting foam. Defence has identified 16 sites across Australia that have been subjected to the use of PFC-containing firefighting foams, including at the Edinburgh Royal Australian Air Force Base. 

I understand that testing of council-owned public water bores has commenced at the Edinburgh RAAF Base, or will commence shortly. The EPA licences the City of Salisbury for its managed aquifer recharge scheme, and the licence requires monitoring for a range of parameters but not PFCs. Given the investigation of the RAAF Edinburgh, the EPA has discussed the need to test for PFCs with the council. 

I am informed that council took samples in May and June of this year but have not yet received those results—at least I haven't been advised of them. The Mayor of the City of Salisbury on radio on 21 June advised that council was taking precautionary measures and testing water samples from the area and confirmed that the council had not yet received the results. As part of its review of PFCs, the EPA is discussing the need to test for PFCs with other operators of managed aquifer recharge schemes in close proximity to potential sources. 

I can advise that in South Australia groundwater is not widely used for drinking, and tap water is not sourced from groundwater in any great amount. The SAEPA has advised the Department of Defence of its obligations under the Environment Protection Act 1993 for any offsite work undertaken and the need to develop a meaningful and effective community engagement program to ensure the local community is informed and engaged throughout the process. 

Recognising the potential concern and the scientific uncertainty around the health effects of these chemicals, a meeting of the Australian chief health officers has developed a national fact sheet, which is available from the commonwealth Department of Health website. I am informed the fact sheet was developed by the Environmental Health Standing Committee and endorsed by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee on 15 March 2016. I will keep a close eye on the national investigations, particularly those at RAAF Edinburgh, and work closely through the EPA with the City of Salisbury in its consideration of the test results that are yet to be received.