What is PFAS
There is an increasing concern as to the risk of harm that Per and Poly-Fluroalkyl Substances (PFAS) present to human health and the environment. This concern is well founded as the PFAS group of chemicals are highly persistent, bioaccumulate, and are linked to adverse impacts in some plants and animals. Once introduced into the environment, PFAS can move rapidly through soil into groundwater. The bioaccumulation of PFAS chemicals in living organisms may have serious consequences for higher order animals, such as humans.
The Heads of the Commonwealth, State and Territory EPA’s (HEPA) National Chemical Working Group are progressing the development of a PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (PFAS NEMP). The PFAS NEMP is being drafted as a living document to provide government and regulators with a consistent, practical, risk-based framework for the environmental regulation of PFAS contaminated materials and sites.
In late February 2019, HEPA published a consultation draft of a revised PFAS NEMP, the first draft of which was published in early 2018. Material amendments include:
- Updated soil criteria to ensure appropriateness for Australian conditions;
- Extensive guidance on the reuse of soil;
- Initial guidance on the management of PFAS in wastewater, including trade waste; and
- On-site storage and containment guidance for PFAS containing products and materials.
In addition to the PFAS NEMP, the Federal Government has published the Draft Commonwealth Environmental Management Guidance (Guidance) which has been produced to assist agencies in the assessment and management of PFAS related chemicals. The Guidance also provides a nationally consistent framework for the diagnosis of and action on contamination. Importantly, where the PFAS NEMP and the Guidance are inconsistent, the PFAS NEMP takes precedence.
NSW EPA acts on PFAS risk
The NSW EPA has recently upped the ante on PFAS contamination, by launching a state-wide PFAS investigation. The investigation is being carried out with the assistance of the NSW PFAS Task Force (which includes NSW Health, Department of Primary Industries and the Office of Environment and Heritage) and will provide impacted residents with tailored precautionary dietary advice to mitigate exposure risk.
The NSW EPA has also made it clear the even small amounts of PFAS (a few parts per million) may trigger regulatory action. On 7 March 2019, the NSW EPA issued a Prevention Notice to a major waste operator at Kooragang Island on the basis that it was reasonably suspected of receiving and processing PFAS contaminated waste, which is not permitted under the applicable Environmental Protection Licence.
The NSW EPA has also recently commenced PFAS investigations into a site at Georgetown, where preliminary results have indicated that PFAS from the site has migrated to groundwater.
How this affects you
Given the publicity on the dangers of PFAS and the NSW EPA’s stringent approach to the handling of PFAS, it is important to ensure operations remain within the scope of any Environmental Protection Licence.
Further, organisations must be familiar with the PFAS NEMP and Guidance to ensure that storage, handling, transport and containment practices are in accordance with those documents.
This article was written by Paul Lalich, Partner and Andrew Scully, Associate.
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