Oakey water contamination: Defence failed to use easy toxin fix

by Rhian Deutrom, originally posted on June 9, 2016


Defence contracted waste management provider Tox Free last year to engage its state-of-the-art “hazardous chemical” destruction machine, Plascon, which can effectively incinerate firefighting foam containing perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluoro­octanoic acid (PFOA).

Ministerial snub for toxic town

The manufactured chemicals are extremely persistent in the environment and cannot break down naturally.

There are two Plascon ­machines in the country that can destroy PFOS and PFOA chemicals – with one based on the Gold Coast – but Defence failed to disclose their knowledge of the machine to concerned residents, despite having used it twice in 10 years.

A Tox Free spokeswoman said the cost to destroy waste materials through Plascon ranges from $7.50-$75 per kilogram, depending on the contaminant and volume.

Documents obtained by The Courier-Mail reveal Tox Free was contracted by the ­Department of Defence last year to destroy a stockpile of firefighting foam in Narangba, north of Brisbane, and Laverton in Victoria.

“Plascon is especially useful for the destruction of concentrated organic halogenated compounds that other processes have difficulty in treating,” the document said.

When questioned, Defence Minister Marise Payne told The Courier-Mail the machine was “not readily transferable” to decontaminate large volumes of groundwater, but the department was investigating remediation options to treat Oakey’s water in the future.

Senator Payne said that a solidification technique was being trialled to introduce a host of additional chemicals into the town’s contaminated soil to “form a concrete like matrix and seek to trap PFOS and PFOA”. She also suggested ­­ex-situ stabilisation as a way to remove large volumes of contaminated soil and mix it with other chemicals to bind the toxins together, preventing further spread.

“And foam separation, which is where air is introduced into water to create foam that traps the PFOS and PFOA and the foam is scraped off and treated,” she said.

While the trials are in their early stages, Senator Payne said the Department would update the Oakey community on the trial’s outcomes.

When asked if the Minister would visit the town before the July 2 election, she said she would “make arrangements to visit Oakey in due course”.

Shine Lawyers partner Peter Shannon said Defence’s prior knowledge of the issues facing Oakey has deliberately put local’s livelihoods and health at risk.

“Defence failed to take ­action to remove the threat and compensate its people accordingly,” Mr Shannon said.

“People have pooled their life savings into their estates only to find out the land was saturated with hazardous materials, dangerous byproducts that should have been managed by our Defence.”

It is understood Shine Lawyers has received 60 inquiries and the firm is looking at preparing a class action.

“Oakey is in total limbo. Its residents’ land is now worthless, their businesses are worth almost nothing, their health is in question and the fear that their children have been exposed to these chemicals, is at times overwhelming,” Mr Shannon said.

“These are salt-of-the-earth citizens who’ve grown up working on the land for the wealth of this state and country. Their lives have been impacted irrevocably and the Defence has a duty of care to take every ­action to ease these burdens from a situation it created.’’

Long-term exposure risks still unknown, top medico warns

QUEENSLAND’S Chief Health Officer has admitted the health impacts of long-term exposure to PFOS and PFOA contamination are unknown and has called on Defence to address the health concerns of residents.

Dr Jeannette Young said evidence suggested there were no short-term health risks from exposure, but said “we just don’t know” what the impact was on people who were exposed to the toxic chemicals for decades on end.

“The evidence that is out there … that there aren’t short -term health risks, we don’t know what the long-term risks are. The most important thing to happen is just to reduce ­exposure of people to the chemicals because we don’t know what might be the long-term risks.”

In Oakey, toxic firefighting foam was in use from 1970 to 2008 and seeped into bore water that topped up water supply in the town.

“Expert advice suggests that the biggest risk for those chemicals is that they continue to accumulate in that environment and don’t break down. So you really don’t know, if you just continue to accumulate them, at what point do they ­become a risk, so you want to minimise exposure,” Dr Young said.

“There is no absolute work that shows the chemical, at the level that it’s been shown to be in people, causes any harm. It’s about the long-term unknowns. If you just allowed it to keep on accumulating, the levels in the environment would just get higher and higher and higher and we just don’t know if you’ve got ­humans being exposed from birth for 70 years to increasing levels – it’s unknown. ”

Dr Young said that she could understand community concern in Oakey and the ­residents deserved more ­information.

“I think it’s really important that we work with the community to give them the information.”

Residents of the Southern Downs town want blood tests to be funded by the Department of Defence – a request that’s been knocked back by the department.

State Health Minister Cameron Dick has committed to carry out the blood tests if the Defence Department will pay for them.


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