PFAS at Botany Industrial Park Q&A
What are PFAS?
PFAS are a range of chemicals called per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. They have been used in many different applications, including
- textiles and leather products
- metal plating
- food packaging
- firefighting foams
- floor polishes
- denture cleanser
- coatings and coating additives
- photographic and photolithographic processes
- medical devices
- hydraulic fluids
PFAS are very stable compounds, including at high temperatures, which makes them very good for firefighting foams, but also makes them persistent in the environment.
The NSW EPA website contains more information on PFAS (http://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/MediaInformation/pfasinvestigationfaqs.htm).
Is there PFAS contamination at BIP?
Yes. Investigations have found PFAS in groundwater, surface water and sediment samples collected on site. Preliminary sampling has also identified the presence of PFAS off site, in Springvale Drain in a commercial area known as Southlands, in surface water at Penrhyn Estuary and groundwater extracted from containment lines near McPherson Street and on Foreshore Road.
The main cause of the PFAS contamination at BIP was firefighting training. During training AFFF firefighting foam was sprayed onto the ground. Some of the material soaked into the ground.
Since 2004 PFAS-free foams have been used for training (but are not suitable for fighting hydrocarbon fires).
What are AFFF?
Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) are a type of foam that is ideal for fighting liquid hydrocarbon fires. The foam can float on top of liquids such as oils, petroleum and other hydrocarbons, and forms a thick and long-lasting blanket that smothers a fire and keeps flames and air away from the flammable liquid.
Why have AFFF firefighting foams been used at BIP?
Certain manufacturing processes on the BIP – past and present – have used or stored flammable hydrocarbon liquids. AFFF firefighting foams are the most effective means of fighting these sorts of fires.
When did the use of AFFF firefighting foams begin at BIP?
The use of AFFF firefighting foams at BIP for firefighting training began in the 1960s. The only known use of PFAS foam for firefighting purposes was in 1995.
Are AFFF firefighting foams still used at BIP?
Yes, but the type of foams now used at BIP contain PFAS that are considered to have less impact on the environment. Since 2004 PFAS-free foams have been used for training (but are not suitable for fighting hydrocarbon fires).
Why are AFFF firefighting foams still used at BIP?
AFFF firefighting foams are still the most effective means of fighting liquid hydrocarbon fires. AFFF manufacturers have been working to develop products that contain PFAS that are considered to have less impact on the environment.
Have PFAS ever been manufactured at BIP?
Is the PFAS contamination a concern?
The presence of PFAS in the environment does not necessarily pose a risk to human health or the environment. Understanding the presence of any exposure pathways through which people might come into contact with the contaminant is also very important.
Australian guideline values developed by the Australian Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) focus on drinking water and recreational water use.
Tests on groundwater and surface water samples have detected PFAS, and at some locations the reported concentrations of PFAS marginally exceed the drinking water and recreational water guidelines for some types of PFAS. Importantly, groundwater and surface water at BIP are not used for either drinking or recreational purposes. In addition, as groundwater and surface water at BIP are already managed for other contaminants, the PFAS results indicate there is a low level risk and that the controls already in place for protecting the health and safety of employees, local residents and the local environment do not need to be changed. However, further investigations will help to confirm this information and will be made available to employees and the community.
Will workers’ health be affected by the PFAS contamination?
The controls already used on site for managing workers’ health are appropriate for preventing potential exposure to PFAS. Workers on site are familiar with precautions required to prevent exposure and protect their health.
How do PFAS get into the body?
The main way that PFAS can enter the body is ingestion (eating and drinking). Inhalation would only be possible if PFAS were entrained in fine airborne droplets/mist or dust, and any risk related to this pathway is considered low and acceptable. PFAS do not volatilise (i.e. do not form a vapour). Dermal exposure (i.e. absorption through the skin) is possible, but would be a minor contributor.
Why haven’t we heard about it sooner?
PFAS contamination is an environmental issue that has only emerged in recent times. The BIP parties received a request from the NSW EPA to provide information about the historical use of AFFF in mid-August 2016. The BIP companies gathered information and responded to the request at the end of September that year. The BIP companies then commenced investigations and discussions with the relevant government departments and this has led to the information that has enabled this Q&A to be developed.
How long has BIP known about the PFAS contamination?
Sampling began in August 2016. This followed an investigation of historical storage and use of PFAS on BIP, which indicated appropriate sampling locations.
How long has the groundwater been contaminated with PFAS?
PFAS have been stored and used on BIP since the mid-1960s, and it is possible that firefighting training started around that time.
Orica has a big groundwater clean-up project. Is it also cleaning up the PFAS contamination?
Results indicate that Orica’s hydraulic containment system is intercepting at least some of the on-site and off-site PFAS contamination. The extracted groundwater is pumped to the Groundwater Treatment Plant (GTP) on BIP. Investigations have been undertaken to determine the fate of PFAS in the GTP, with sampling showing there is no PFAS in the treated water produced by the GTP and low concentrations of PFAS in the GTP’s trade waste discharge. PFAS have not been detected in the treated water that is reticulated to other on-site and off-site industrial users.
The BIP companies will continue to work with the EPA and relevant statutory authorities to confirm the existing controls in place at BIP are appropriate to protect the health and safety of employees, local residents and the local environment.
Has the PFAS contamination at BIP gone off-site?
Yes. Investigations have found PFAS in groundwater and surface water samples collected off site.
Samples have been taken from surface water in Springvale Drain in a commercial area known as Southlands, in surface water at Penrhyn Estuary and in groundwater extracted from containment lines near McPherson Street and on Foreshore Road.
Some of the samples tested returned concentrations that exceed Australian guideline values for drinking water for some PFAS, but it is important to note that groundwater and surface water in this area are not used for drinking or recreational use. Domestic use of groundwater has been prohibited for many years around the BIP in an area known as the Groundwater Extraction Exclusion Area (GEEA), due to a range of contamination from historical industrial activity. Public access to Penrhyn Estuary is prohibited, and Springvale Drain is covered or not accessible south of Southlands.
As such it seems unlikely off-site sources would create an exposure pathway of concern.
The existing groundwater collection infrastructure in place for the groundwater clean-up project will collect PFAS in groundwater and send it back to the Groundwater Treatment Plant (GTP). Sampling shows there is no PFAS in the treated water produced by the GTP that is reticulated to other on-site and off-site industrial users, and low concentrations of PFAS in the GTP’s trade waste discharge. Further investigations will be undertaken to determine the fate of PFAS in the GTP.
Further investigations will also be conducted to determine the extent of contamination off site from BIP PFAS sources and the implications arising from any exposure pathways to people and the environment. These results will be made available in a timely manner.
Is BIP the only source of PFAS contamination in the area?
There are a number of possible sources of PFAS beyond the BIP site – both past and present – that have not been investigated by the BIP parties.
Has the PFAS contamination at BIP gone into residential areas?
Investigations have found PFAS in groundwater samples collected in the residential area to the south-west of the impacted areas on BIP, west of Botany Golf Course.
In addition to the BIP, there are a number of possible sources of PFAS in this area – both past and present – that have not been investigated by the BIP parties.
Domestic use of groundwater has been prohibited in this area (which is part of the above mentioned “GEEA”) for over 10 years.
Will residents’ health be affected by the PFAS contamination?
The main way that PFAS can enter the body is ingestion (eating and drinking), and groundwater is unlikely to be ingested. Domestic use of groundwater has been prohibited for many years around the BIP in an area known as the Groundwater Extraction Exclusion Area (GEEA), due to contamination from other historical industrial activity (more information:
http://www.water.nsw.gov.au/water-management/water-quality/groundwater/botany-sands-aquifer). Further investigations will be conducted to determine the extent of contamination off site from BIP PFAS sources and the implications arising from any exposure pathways to people and the environment. These results will be made available in a timely manner.
What happens next?
The BIP companies will continue to cooperate with the EPA’s PFAS investigations and will share updates at meetings of the Botany Industrial Park Community Consultative Committee (BIP CCC).