The Federal Government has flagged the possibility of phasing out a potentially harmful chemical used in firefighting foam in the wake of a spill from a Qantas hangar into the Brisbane River.
Thousands of litres of the foam leaked into the river from a Qantas hangar at Brisbane’s airport last week, killing fish and sparking a public warning by the Queensland Government to not eat locally caught seafood.
It sparked renewed calls to ban the foam across Australia and possibly more legal action.
The Queensland Government wants the Commonwealth to ban the foam entirely.
A statement by federal Minister for Infrastructure Darren Chester said the Commonwealth was now considering the “transitional removal” of the chemical used in the firefighting foam.
“While it is known PFAS can persist for a long time, there is no consistent evidence that PFAS exposure is harmful to human health,” Mr Chester said in a statement.
“The Government is considering management options for PFOS and PFOA transitional removal from use, improved management and appropriate disposal of PFOS-containing firefighting foams at all facilities in Australia, consistent with the listing of the chemical under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
“The federal department continues to work with Qantas, BAC, the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage, the Commonwealth Department of the Environment and Energy, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and other relevant Commonwealth departments regarding management of the spill and to ensure the spill is managed correctly and in line with respective jurisdictional regulations.”
Qantas to be issued with Investigation Notice
Queensland health authorities are still advising people not to eat fish or prawns taken from the Brisbane River after the foam spill last week, despite encouraging preliminary test results.
Testing has found that chemical levels in Boggy Creek in the immediate vicinity of the Qantas spill had diluted enough to make the river safe for recreational activity.
But Queensland Health said more results were needed before a restriction was lifted on fishing and trawling.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Steven Miles said Qantas today would be issued with an Investigation Notice, requiring the airline to properly investigate the spill and report to the Environment Department.
Qantas advised the environmental regulator 22,000 litres of foam was accidentally released from a sprinkler system in an airport hangar on April 10.
Qantas advised about three-quarters of the foam was captured within the hangar, but some escaped into the airport stormwater system and the surrounding environment.
Qantas has said it was working with Brisbane Airport on the clean-up and investigation.
Seaford industry suffers, Qantas ‘ignoring everyone’
Moreton Bay Seafood Industry Association spokesman Michael Wood said the incident had caused causing financial losses for the local seafood industry.
“I’ve had an order this week off a processor I do business with for a 1,000 kilograms of prawns, and he’s rung me up, and said ‘don’t want it’ — the customer has cancelled,” he said.
“I’m at least $10,000 out of pocket and there could be other possible orders there he could have, that I can’t supply.”
Mr Wood said the MBSIA wanted to lobby the Federal Government to ban PFOA.
“We don’t know the reason why Qantas has still got it,” he said.
“From what I understand, it’s legal to use on Commonwealth land but not on state soil — I don’t know what other stuff is available on the market.
“No doubt there’s other fire-retardant products on the market that they would use.”
Mr Wood has called on Qantas to compensate local anglers for their financial losses.
“Qantas at present is virtually ignoring everyone — they say they have spoken to stakeholders … I can assure you, they have not spoken to my organisation,” Mr Wood said.
He said it was too early to consider whether to take legal action against Qantas.
“It’s early days yet, we’ll see what pans out,” he said.
“Who knows? Qantas might come to the party and offer us a deal, but if they don’t, we will certainly go out to industry and ask their thoughts on it.”
Blanket ban may not be the answer, experts say
Hundreds of residents from Oakey in Queensland and Williamtown in New South Wales launched a class action against the Department of Defence over the same foam leaching from RAAF bases into groundwater.
Defence has been phasing out the foam from most sites across Australia and Airservices Australia said it was doing the same at airports, although it said it had no control over its use by airlines.
Professor Ravi Naidu, from the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment, said a blanket ban was not necessarily the answer.
“The way I see it, as a scientist, is that human life is important,” he said.
“Therefore we need to come up with ways and means to ensure that the risk of the active ingredients in PFAS pose to humans is minimised.”
Professor Naidu said there were alternatives to using the foam.
“From the literature I’m familiar with, none of the alternatives are as good as what we used to have in terms of time it takes to dose fire,” he said.
“Often accidents do occur, but the key thing is — if accidents do occur, you need to put in strategies that minimise damage to the environment.
“If you look at it this way, then perhaps they [Qantas] didn’t have appropriate strategies in place.”
Fishing is to be avoided on the Brisbane River near the airport. (ABC News: Melanie Vujkovic)