Legislative Council: Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Parliamentary Committees

Environment, Resources and Development Committee: Disposal of PFAS Contaminated Waste in South Australia

The Hon. E.S. BOURKE (17:02): I move:

That the first report of the committee, entitled Briefing Report on the Disposal of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Contaminated Waste in South Australia, be noted.

In May 2021, the Environment, Resources and Development Committee of the Fifty-Fourth Parliament established an inquiry into the disposal of PFAS-contaminated waste in South Australia. The acronym PFAS refers to a group of over 4,000 synthetic chemicals that have been used since the 1950s. PFAS have been used in a wide range of applications, from non-stick cookware to cosmetics to stain protection in carpets to firefighting foam.

They are often called 'forever chemicals' as they will not break down. They are also highly mobile and capable of travelling vast distances in soil or water. Because of their widespread use and mobility, PFAS contamination is extensive. However, areas like defence bases or airports, where firefighting drills were carried out using foams containing PFAS, tend to be the most contaminated. It is said that PFAS are present in the bodies of most humans and animals but research into the effects on health has proven inconclusive, with research ongoing.

Since the early 2000s, Australian governments have employed the precautionary principle in managing existing PFAS contamination, working to reduce or completely prevent environmental and human PFAS exposure wherever possible. South Australia was the first state to implement an outright ban of the use in firefighting foam and foam products in 2018.

There is considerable public concern about PFAS and where it is disposed. This was evident in 2020, when landfill operators Southern Waste ResourceCo lodged an application with the EPA to begin accepting PFAS waste at their landfill on Tatachilla Road. I commend the member for Mawson, Leon Bignell, for raising the concerns of the McLaren Vale community regarding this application.

The landfill site sits only a short distance from the vineyards and wineries that characterise this unique part of South Australia. Members of the local community and the City of Onkaparinga opposed the application based on an unacceptable level of risk. They petitioned the state government and the EPA to refuse the application. After an assessment process in 2021, the EPA ruled in the petitioners' favour that the McLaren Vale landfill would not be permitted to accept PFAS-contaminated waste.

However, at this stage there was still nowhere in South Australia to dispose of PFAS safely, with most of it either having to be stored temporarily or transported to disposal sites interstate. This was the case when an interim report was tabled by the committee on 4 February 2022, prior to the formation of the current parliament. During this time the EPA was working towards a solution, drafting new siting guidelines for the disposal of PFAS waste in South Australian landfills. Rather than continue the inquiry, the committee chose to be briefed by the EPA.

On 29 May 2023, the Environment, Resources and Development Committee of the Fifty-Fifth Parliament received a presentation from the EPA providing an update on the management of PFAS in South Australia. Staff from the EPA talked the committee through the new guidelines that serve as a primary control to minimise environmental and health risks from hazard waste disposal and to determine a site suitable for permanent waste disposal, both while the facility is in operation and after it has closed.

The guidelines contained colour-coded maps that can quickly demonstrate the suitability by providing a visual reference for potential applicants looking to license potential PFAS disposal sites. These maps illustrate the flood risk; the risk to people and the environment; and to protected areas such as national parks and wildlife areas, water protection areas, character preservation areas, heritage sites, food production areas, prescribed wells areas and Indigenous lands.

The new EPA site guidelines render ineligible landfill sites such as McLaren Vale from accepting PFAS waste. Together with the site suitability guidelines, the EPA have also been working on guidelines for industry and the community on the re-use of waste soils containing very low or trivial levels of PFAS. Both sets of guidelines have been through an exhaustive consultation process, and the final versions are expected to be released in the coming months for further public consultation before being finalised.

The committee also heard about the licence changes at the Cleanaway Inkerman landfill site, allowing it now to accept PFAS waste. This means that PFAS waste can now be disposed of safely in South Australia and would no longer need to be transported interstate for disposal. The Inkerman site is situated between Port Wakefield and Dublin, around 85 kilometres north of Adelaide, and the landfill has been in operation for over a decade.

The EPA staff walked the committee through the licence change process for Inkerman, a process that took several years and required groundwater testing, 12 months of groundwater monitoring, and formal assessment of potential risks to human health and the environment, including three potential failure scenarios and an extensive community engagement process. Inkerman's location is consistent with the new guidelines and provides an ample buffer between the disposal site and the neighbouring properties and wetlands.

The report also addressed topics that the previous Environment, Resources and Development Committee recommended be followed up by the new committee, these being:

perceived and actual public health risks of PFAS—a limited understanding of these risks remains, but research into health effects is ongoing;

storage and transportation of PFAS-contaminated waste—current and future practices; and

economic issues in segregating PFAS on construction and commercial waste sites.

The committee also heard about the potential for breaking down PFAS to render them benign in local, cost-efficient and environmentally sensitive ways. I understand that research has been undertaken into this through both the University of South Australia and the University of Western Australia.

I would like to thank the Presiding Member of the committee, the member for Badcoe, Jayne Stinson, as well as other members, particularly the members from this chamber—the Hon. Tammy Franks and the Hon. Michelle Lensink. I also thank the committee secretary, Mr Patrick Dupont, and the research officer, Dr Amy Mead, for their tireless work. I commend the report to the chamber.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. L.A. Henderson.