Something in the water

Stu Nettle
Swellnet Dispatch

In March 2016 a story titled ‘What’s happening to the water in Williamtown?’ ran in the Sydney Morning Herald detailing the closure of nearby fishing grounds and the effects on the local fishing community. Located on the northern shores of the Hunter River, Willamtown is a fishing and farming community, and it also houses a Royal Australian Air Force base. Though the story lacked concrete evidence it implied the air base was the source of Willamtown's problems.

In 2015, the Department of Primary Industry (DPI) discovered a suspected carcinogen, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in prawns and fish caught in adjacent Fullerton Cove. The DPI promptly banned all forms of fishing in the waterway, effectively dry docking Williamtown’s commercial fishing fleet and frightening locals who for years had swam in Fullerton Cover and drank the groundwater that flowed towards it.

Message from the people of Williamtown to the Department of Defence

As Chris Ray, who wrote the Herald article, stated, “Few people know of PFOS and its sister compound perfluourooctanoic acid (PFAS). We will soon hear a lot more about them.”

Created in 1949 by 3M, the same company who makes Post-It notes, those temporary memos we stick to the fridge, PFAS was a lucrative discovery. Unlike Post-It notes, PFAS is virtually indestructible in the environment and it also repels grease, oil, and water. PFAS is the key ingredient in Scotchgard. It found other uses in Teflon non-stick cookware, various cleaning agents, and both PFOS and PFAS were used to make aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) - fire-fighting foam.

In 1968, it was first suspected that PFOS was poisoning consumers, an argument strengthened in the 1970s and all but confirmed when in 1997 PFOS was found in global blood banks. Three years later 3M voluntarily phased out PFOS-related products, yet they were still manufactured in China and used in fire-fighting foam. 

At airports around Australia, indeed around the world, fire-fighting foam was used in weekly drills, often simulated plane crashes, where response teams would ‘fight’ a blaze using PFAS-laden foam, then allow the dregs to wash into the groundwater. For over forty years PFAS was used internationally in fire-fighting foam, and subsequently allowed to leach into the ground.

In July 2017, the Newcastle Herald reported a cancer cluster in Williamtown with 24 people being diagnosed from just one street, Cabbage Tree Road, which lies between the airport and the waterway. The cluster received little media attention outside of Newcastle. However, later that year, Chris Ray’s statement started coming true and we began to hear a lot more about PFAS.

First was reports of elevated levels of PFAS at Coolangatta Creek, Kirra. The culprit again fire-fighting foam leaching into the soil at Coolangatta Airport and moving into the local waterways. Then in mid-2018 a report on the wider problem was published with almost every airport or air base implicated in some way, plus other chemical plants that also employed regular fire drills. Shortly thereafter it was revealed that aviation firefighters in Australia had up to 20 times the level of PFAS in their bloodstream to the general population despite PFAS being phased out of foam in 2010.

More recently, locals at Wreck Bay Village on the NSW south coast, home to Aussie Pipe, were told they could no longer swim in nearby Mary Creek and Summercloud lagoon as they'd been polluted by PFAS discharged over forty years at the nearby air force base. Swimming holes on the north side of the base near Hyams Beach and Jervis Bay Village have also been closed due to PFAS. Wreck Bay elder Jimmy Williams, who worked as an aviation firefighter and also swam, drank, and fished in Mary Creek, has been diagnosed with cancer. It's a lone case yet authorities are unable to ascertain the prevalence of a cluster due to administrative red tape - the ACT cannot access health records for another territory.

Hyams Beach has the whitest sand in the world and is overrun by tourists, while nearby Captain's Lagoon is best avoided

At the same time warning signs were going up at Wreck Bay came news that a PFAS-contaminated area was found immediately west of Adelaide airport near West Beach and North Glenelg, plus contamination presenting a "low level risk" at Seven Mile Beach, Hobart, which lies adjacent to Hobart airport. Wherever there's an airport there's a threat of PFAS contamination, and considering Australia's population pattern that means the threat is coastal.

The appeal of PFAS to industry, it's indestructibility, means that it bioaccumulates in various ecosystems, in the flora and fauna, ultimately ending up in humans. No-one's quite sure what that means yet, whether the Williamtown cancer cluster is an outlier or, as Chris Ray said, something we'll hear a lot more of.


50young's picture
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50young commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 1:31pm

Mankind developes so many substances taht we have no idea of the long term effects, they seem like great ideas at the time and we will eventually or should I say our kids and their kids will eventually be faced with the aftermath

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Westofthelake commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 2:20pm

True 50y. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons come to mind which eventually were recognised as a world wide problem scientifically identified in 1985, that led to a world wide commitment to fix it in 1987 through the Montreal Protocol.
Not sure how long the Defence Department and airports can ignore what has already been scientifically established.

blindboy's picture
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blindboy commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 1:47pm

Hmmm Ngurah Rai?

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mattmac commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 1:57pm

They probably don't do fire training/drills at Ngurah Rai -just wait for plane to crash then try and work out which end of the hose to attach:-)

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Patate commented Friday, 11 Jan 2019 at 8:52am

Is your comment based on factual data or a not funny denigrating joke on people that have been kindly hosting tourists who sometimes forget about basic respect?

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mattmac commented Friday, 11 Jan 2019 at 9:54am

Obviously you're taking my comment a bit too seriously -where's your sense of humour:-(

Cams's picture
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Cams commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 2:14pm

Thanks for that article, compulsory reading for everyone. Unfortunately if you don't live near an airport you are still not safe from PFA exposure. Check out "Slow death by rubber duck"...

Coops70's picture
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Coops70 commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 2:06pm

Having to work in the contamination zone is a worry to me. How they think pfos hasn’t reached Graham’s town dam is bullshit. It has far reaching affects for people that work here and locals. I personally know people directly affected by pfos that live in the contamination zone. Property dropped to nothing and health issues. The Raaf have done fuck all, they don’t give a shit. Too worried to compensate for fear of opening a can of worms and having to pay there way out of it. Also a government and politicians with no back bone. They will wait until everyone is dead and gone and say oops sorry bout that. Pathetic.

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Jof commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 3:01pm

Seems to be a good example of how industry standards and regulations have gone too far and now are causing problems instead of solving them.

uncle_leroy's picture
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uncle_leroy commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 3:45pm

The Four Corners segment is in this link.
Defence have to be held accountable (known the dangers for years) to clear bank debts for those affected so they don't end up taking their own lives. I'm sure it's already happened though with mortgage stress and devaluation of property overnight

uncle_leroy's picture
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uncle_leroy commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 3:17pm

And it's not just PFAs you need to be concerned about. If you live within 15km of a landfill facility I'd seriously consider selling and moving on whilst you still can without property valuation loss. Guaranteed to occur at every landfill that was operational pre-mid-1990's.

truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 3:28pm

Great Work Stu.
All East Coast Airports are on floodplains running into estuaries > Ocean
Fire Fighting foam is also used as Shark Burley and destroys habitat.
Qantas + Bne Airport leaks shut Moreton Bay Prawn Farmers( White Spot Lawsuit)
GCA Cooly Creek poisoning of WSR + Groundwater is on going.

2014 East Coast Airports began swapping over to organic solution(solberg RF6)
Regional Airports Ballina/Hamilton Island were in first batches to swap.
Unfortunately 'solberg RF6' makes equally good Shark Burley. (Concentrated brew)
Bue Gill Bream/Gold Fish/Water Fleas(Fish Food)/Green Algae(Primary fish food)

2016 Gold Coast Airport adopted front line clean up of PFAS. (here's how)

Estuary Detox:
*Contain all Golf Course /Airport runoff onsite or treatment ponds.
*Reintroducing Mangroves/Sea Grass/Oysters...(Developers! 'Is this a fuckin Joke?')
That's the best current recipe we got to mop up the foam & rid the sharks.

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Lanky Dean commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 4:39pm


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Garryh commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 5:21pm

Everyone who's been waiting to try out the urbansurf wave park that's supposedly being built at Tullamarine in Melbourne...well perhaps think about the fact that this site and nearby ground water may be affected by all the mock fire drills at the airport. . If you're an investor perhaps ask about the risk


truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 6:37pm

uncle_leroy opens another can of worms.
These old open Sand/Quartz Quarries turn Tip Sites were also nearer the Coastline.
Anything goes back then Asbestos Car Batteries/Tyres/TV's/Fridges/Med Waste.
Chem Cocktails usually backed onto Airports often buried beneath Sports Fields.
Pretty much all us old goats can tell the kidz their playing fields were once tip sites.
Over the years problems arise with grazes & wounds that turn septic. (THE TIP!!!)

Our Varsity Lakes Train Station is built on a Sand Mine Toxic Dump.(We told them!)
Procedure to remove Chems then refill got outta control.On & On & On.(Money Pit)
Yes removing the shit is bad enough but where to get mega quality fill close to town?

truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 7:01pm

Garryh: Excellent wake up call. Consider the relining of Texas Tea pool as we speak.
(2/1/2019) URBNSURF hire out thermal suits for their hot tubs + 'Free Straws!'

cd's picture
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cd commented Wednesday, 9 Jan 2019 at 9:33pm

This is going to become a much bigger problem. So no allowed discharge, yet no concentration guidelines. Rumoured to be found in the biosolids from a number of wastewater treatment facilities. Now unable to apply to land as beneficial reuse or dispose to landfill. Forced to stockpile with limit storage.

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what_up commented Thursday, 10 Jan 2019 at 12:31pm

Tomago aluminium smelter sitting right next to the north channel feeder for fullerton cove leeching in also..... I am so sad and dismayed for these guys. I grew up very close to this area where Grahamstown Dam was the water we drank. There needs to be accountability from the authorities, they need to accept responsibility for whats happened whether they understood it at the time or not... there needs to be some exercise in compassion

Logical's picture
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Logical commented Thursday, 10 Jan 2019 at 4:31pm

Cancer causers like this get 0.1% of media attention.

CO2 Climate change gets 99.9% of the media coverage,

Go figure !!

truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher commented Thursday, 10 Jan 2019 at 4:40pm

CAP Coalition against PFAS Submission July 2018 (Exerts & Notes)

95% of Population now have PFAS in their bodies.

2000 U.S. EPA advised Australia of dangers .
2004-2011 Ansulite was falsely marketed/used but it also contained PFAS
2014 Solberg RF6 & other Brine based solutions are used.

Inhouse Government reports were prescribed to afford higher doses to Aussies. eg:

2016 Aust Govt revised upward safe PFAS water level 78 x higher (world standard)
2017 Aust Govt revised upward safe PFAS food Level 10 x higher (world standard)
2017 Aust Govt revised upward safe PFAS blood levels 6 x higher (world standard)

So Aussies are almost as normal as some retarded alien race... we can dream!

Test loss to sub continent ranks us well beneath 3rd world living standards.
Walking Dead salutes LNP for glow in the dark coffins...PFAS...mmm...PFAS !

(Katherine PFAS meeting )
Fed Govt Chair of Health Panel Professor Nick Buckley (Sums up the Govt's concern)
*'I have no background in PFAS'
*'I got dragged into this!'
*'Surely,someone more qualified could have chaired this expert panel.'

Nomination: (World Health Award)


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Feralkook commented Thursday, 10 Jan 2019 at 6:49pm

I remember using that stuff in the forces for firefighting, we would get drenched in it, I am already on an asbestos register for that organisation and a heavy metals register because the Jason's Pistol we used to take the paint and rust off ship hulls and decking used metal rods which had beryllium added for hardness. Of course back in those days you got glasses and gloves and that was about it.

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surfingbymyself commented Thursday, 10 Jan 2019 at 8:28pm

The Intercept has a 14-15 part series on PFAS/PFOS in the US. They’ve established civil liability in many parts of the states for heath issues for people who live in towns near 3M/USAF/USN facilities. As someone who lives near the williamtown red zone and has worked inside red zones for fair chunks of my life, I’m still amazed that the RAAF and CoA continue to get away with peddling the bullshit that the health impacts are uncertain.

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surfingbymyself commented Thursday, 10 Jan 2019 at 8:32pm

Should add that The Intercept articles make it clear that 3M knew about the health impact from ~70s and only covered it up.

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tubeshooter commented Thursday, 10 Jan 2019 at 9:23pm

This a proposal for a wave pool not very far away . "designed as a biological filter the park will rely on natural processes to keep it clean, rather than use chlorine , setting a standard for others to follow".

truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher commented Thursday, 10 Jan 2019 at 9:29pm

surfingbymyself - Thanks...Huge library..on your behalf > linking #6 + menu page.

Feralkook that sounds gruesome,you must have won 2nd prize in a beauty contest.
I can relate as I was covered in Asbestos dust during youth then Silica dust 20 years.
This page is the National PFAS Directory - links to defence PFAS sites.

truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher commented Thursday, 10 Jan 2019 at 10:27pm

tubeshooter / URBNSURF (Wavepark Group) Ruled out Newcastle as too small.
Surfest organizer Warren Smith said there was Wavepool talk in early 2017

Ride website promotes Australia's first Loop Linear WavePool
Webber is Loop Linear! That implies Ride is being built before Tunnel Vision Logan.
They won't have trouble convincing any apart from getting Webber to actually start!

tubeshooter...thanx for tip off! You wouldn't have more WavePool info on retro Ride?

tubeshooter's picture
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tubeshooter commented Thursday, 10 Jan 2019 at 10:47pm

Nothing more yet truebluebasher.
I believe though ,that their water management plan and the location and proximity to this fiasco will work against them .
Do Hazmat make wetsuits ?

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Willliam commented Friday, 11 Jan 2019 at 1:39pm

If you are worried about pfas levels in you local waterways. You can collect a sample of water yourself and have a NATA accredited Laboratory analyse the sample. However, it does cost $450 per water sample.

tubeshooter's picture
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tubeshooter commented Friday, 11 Jan 2019 at 8:03pm

It's not restricted to airports. There are many other places where regular training exercises have been done , and often near waterways. Every mariner with a commercial ticket is required to have practical fire training, that includes deckhands. And that's just one example.

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Oceanliving9356 commented Sunday, 13 Jan 2019 at 12:45pm

Not only used in Aviation firefighting, also AFFF was used in South Australia by the South Aust Metropolitan Fire Service until 2 years ago. Just a few weeks ago the Largs North Fire station was closed down as it was found that Firefighters had extremely high levels of PFAS in their blood.
All members of SAMFS are at the moment having our blood tested and at the moment we don't know if this chemical causes Cancer or not. It was stored on the Fire trucks and used on all vehicle fires, Refinery fires, any fire that required a foam blanket to smother the fire.
All the run off went down the drain, into the Sea and soil and into the Firefighters skin. We just don't seem to learn, do we

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spuddyjack commented Tuesday, 15 Jan 2019 at 5:29pm

Disturbing but not surprising article. A bloody shameful nightmare.
Australia has a perfidious history of toxic chemical abuse and cover-ups.

Stay salty

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Sprout commented Friday, 18 Jan 2019 at 4:38pm

SOIL and water are being tested at the Sunshine Coast Airport expansion site to determine the extent of a chemical contamination caused by firefighting foam.

The foam, used by Airservices Australia at the airport between 2004 and 2010, contained PFAS chemicals that have been found to have contaminated sites around Australia.

The Department of Health rates the release of these chemicals into the environment as an "emerging concern" because they are highly persistent, have been shown to be toxic to fish and some animals and can accumulate in the bodies of fish, animals and people who come into contact with them.

But the department also says there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects.

Regardless, their discovery has prompted further investigations by Airservices Australia and Sunshine Coast Council.

A council spokesman said the levels found were very low compared with what existed at other airports around Australia and were not considered significant.

"The levels are in line with new national and state guidelines released in 2018, where site disturbance occurs, soils and groundwater from the site will be tested and treated as a precautionary measure if necessary," the spokesman said.

"This will be managed through a process of selective removal of soils and dewatering and storage of groundwater in accordance with Australian standards."

He said it was standard practice on construction sites where excavations where required and where the groundwater level was close to the surface.

"This groundwater will be tested against relevant water quality guidelines before being treated as necessary."

He said the process was not anticipated to impact on the completion date for the airport expansion project.

"Airservices Australia has developed a national program for addressing their legacy PFAS issues in consultation with all relevant State and Federal Government agencies.

"Council is engaged with this process to ensure appropriate accountability is taken for the management of legacy PFAS matters going forward."

An Airservices Australia spokeswoman said the organisation was yet to finish its preliminary site investigation but expected it would completed in coming months and the results published online. 

"Once this process is completed, we will continue to work collaboratively with the airport, Queensland Government agencies and other stakeholders to discuss any further management actions," the spokeswoman said.

"Early results indicate the presence of PFAS, but at low levels."

A Department of Environment and Science spokesman said reports provided by council indicated groundwater concentrations were below national drinking water guideline values along the eastern boundary adjacent to the residential areas.  

"Department of Environment and Science is currently working with council to ensure that any PFAS contamination uncovered as part of the airport expansion project is being managed effectively."

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Sprout commented Thursday, 23 May 2019 at 3:45pm

One way to go about a time/budget blowout *facepalm*
Sunshine Coast Council was seeking an easing of PFAS contamination standards for its airport runway expansion project to allow it to speed up removal of groundwater from the site into the Maroochy River and adjacent national park

SUNSHINE Coast Council is seeking to have water-quality parameters and monitoring requirements for the airport runway project watered down, councillors will be told this afternoon.

They will be told the council want them reset "to more realistically reflect the background water quality variations associated with the significant rainfall events that were experienced in 2018 and 2019” at a special meeting today.

The council has been in discussion with the Department of Environment and Science about the water-quality treatment levels required under the Environmental Authority that allowed the runway expansion project to proceed.

Civil works subcontractors on the site were stood down indefinitely more than two weeks ago and work all but stopped because the council has failed to produce a PFAS Management Plan for the release of water to the environment.

Chemicals contained in PFAS fire-fighting foam used at the airport from 2004 to 2010 could accumulate in fish, prawns, crabs and birds and impact on their ability to feed and breed.

A Department of Environment spokesperson said today Sunshine Coast Council was expected to implement a PFAS Management Plan for the expansion project that met national requirements that provided a default 99 per cent species protection level to be used to manage the risk of bio-accumulation, where no site-specific information was available.

The failure by the council to produce a PFAS management plan has meant none of the water collected inside the construction site could be released, making the site waterlogged and unworkable.

"The NEMP (National Environmental Management Plan) also promotes site-specific risk assessments to determine appropriate PFAS management criteria that protect local communities and environment,” the Department of Environment spokesperson said.

"The council is currently completing site-specific risk assessments against the NEMP guidelines to finalise its PFAS Management Plan, as required by its Environmental Authority.

"DES will continue to work with council to ensure that they achieve the required environmental protection.”

The airport expansion is taking place adjacent a national park which had groundwater-dependent fauna and flora.

A relaxation in the water-quality standards for PFAS would considerably reduce the time and cost to treat and clear the water but would come at the cost of increased risks to the ecology of the receiving environment, experts have said.

The 99 per cent species protection levels required under the NEMP were developed on the basis of risk mitigation.

The Environmental Authority provided to the runway project was rare in that it did not require third-party review of the council processes in delivering acceptable environmental outcomes

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Sprout commented Tuesday, 27 Aug 2019 at 7:58am

So they're going to treat it and pump it into the ocean. Won't be surfing near Mudjimba when this happens.
An underground pipeline will be installed about 4.5m under David Low Way and under the dunes, beach and sea floor, out 400m east of the lowest astronomical tide mark.
The pipe outlet will reach about 50cm above the sea floor, about 10m below lowest astronomical tide level, and not be visible from the beach.
Cr Dwyer said there may be a yellow or brown stain in the water being pumped out, and a foam could form in the mixing zone where the freshwater meets saltwater.
"While this foam may appear brown in colour, council is advised there is no health risk," he said.
"Council is committed to going the extra mile and exceeding requirements. The contaminant concentrations of the water at the release point will be almost 200 times below the allowable level."

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stunet commented Monday, 21 Oct 2019 at 11:17am

The PFAS debate ramps up with Erin Brokovich stepping into the fray and two class action lawsuits starting with the potential for more:

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stunet commented Thursday, 27 Feb 2020 at 3:23pm

Williamtown class action results in an in-principle settlement:

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mick-free commented Thursday, 27 Feb 2020 at 8:38pm

Wow thats massive!