Ministers endorse national PFAS plan

COMMONWEALTH, state and territory environment ministers endorsed Australia’s first PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP) on 16 February.

The plan provides governments with a “consistent, practical, risk-based framework for the environmental regulation of PFAS-contaminated sites”.

The most notorious of these areas are around the Williamtown, Oakey and Tindall Defence Force bases, although sites in Victoria and WA have also been identified as PFAS-contaminated.

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are chemicals that were used in fire-fighting foams employed by defence and civil air rescue crews. They are also used in textile treatments for upholstery and clothing, paper products and electroplating.

Because of their environmental persistence and bioaccumulation effects, some PFAS have been globally identified as chemicals of high concern.

Development of nationally consistent standards for managing environmental contamination began in 2016 after environment ministers agreed that all jurisdictions had a critical role to play in PFAS containment and remediation.

The NEMBP provides guidance around storage, re-use and disposal of contaminated material, which it is hoped will facilitate proactive decision-making for contaminated site management, including remediation.

The head of the Federal Government's PFAS taskforce, Liberal Senator James McGrath, said a nationally consistent approach would ensure all levels of government cooperated for the benefit of affected communities.

Senator McGrath said the Commonwealth has already invested $88 million in remediation, research and an epidemiological study, as well as counselling services and blood testing for residents.

However, he maintains there is currently no consistent evidence that PFAS is harmful to human health.

“It is essential that any action by the Commonwealth be very clearly based on evidence, proportionate to the level of risk and fiscally sustainable into the future for all governments and private industry,” Senator McGrath said last week.

“So more research is required before definitive statements can be made on causality or risk; which is what we are doing,” he said.

The expert health panel set up to advise the Commonwealth on the potential health impacts associated with PFAS exposure and to identify priority areas for further research is expected to provide its advice to the Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, in late February.