Legislative Council: Wednesday, October 18, 2023


Parliamentary Committees

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

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. E.S. Bourke:

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.

(Continued from 27 September 2023.)

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (17:12): On 4 May 2021, the House of Assembly took a step forward in acknowledging the challenges and need for solutions to disposing of PFAS-contaminated waste. Understanding that these resilient, so-called forever chemicals have persisted in our environment, crossing borders of soil, water and even biological systems, is imperative. Although significant in the technological and industrial realms, their legacy also casts a shadow on environmental stewardship for a very long time.

The challenge is twofold: not only do we need a disposal method but also a location within South Australia. We have felt the strains of transporting waste interstate due to the absence of licensed local facilities for PFAS disposal.

I understand this situation prompted Southern Waste ResourceCo to come forth with a potential solution, applying to the EPA to accept PFAS waste at their McLaren Vale landfill, but that was met with some concerns primarily centred on the unacceptable level of risk it presented. The EPA, following its rigorous assessment, has denied this request. On 22 May this year, the Cleanaway Inkerman landfill received approval from the EPA to handle PFAS-contaminated waste.

It is important to understand the backdrop against how these decisions have been made. Our approach to PFAS management has consistently aligned with the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan, or NEMP 2.0. An updated version, NEMP 3.0, is coming due to collaborative efforts of state and territory Australian and New Zealand governments, all under the oversight of the Heads of EPA Australia and New Zealand (HEPA).

PFAS in South Australia remains under the regulatory structure of the Environment Protection Act, environmental protection policies and the guidelines set forth by the EPA SA. In the briefing on 23 May 2023, the Environment, Resources and Development Committee had briefings from Dr Jon Gorvett, Ms Kathryn Bellette and Dr Shaun Thomas from the EPA, and we thank them for their evidence. A large part of their briefing was to provide updated guidelines for PFAS disposal.

The revised guidelines, yet to be finalised, establish controls to safeguard the environment and health and to determine the viability of a site for PFAS disposal. In order for the existing landfills to be PFAS compliant they would need to undergo a process change in their licences, and an exhaustive human health and ecological risk assessment will become mandatory, ensuring that all of these consequences are evaluated.

We look forward to progress on this journey. Clearly, there have been a number of different communities that have been impacted by PFAS persisting in their environment and we understand that this is a challenge that we will all face going forward.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:15): I rise to speak on this report. PFAS, of course, are a group of over 4,000 synthetic chemicals being used in industry and consumer products for decades because of their ability to resist heat, stains, grease and water. Unfortunately, in many ways, these useful properties also make PFAS highly problematic 'forever chemicals' that persist in people, animals and the environment, and may impact on their health.

The PFAS of greatest concern are those that are highly mobile in water, which means that they travel long distances from their source point. Many countries have discontinued or are progressively phasing out their use. Indeed, the Australian government has worked since 2002 to reduce the use of certain PFAS.

The historical use of PFAS in firefighting foams has resulted in increased levels being detected at sites like airports and defence bases where firefighting training has been conducted, including the RAAF base at Edinburgh in South Australia. Heightened environmental levels of PFAS have also been found near some industrial areas, effluent outfalls and landfill sites.

It should come as no surprise that when landfill operator Southern Waste ResourceCo lodged an application with the EPA in 2020 to begin accepting PFAS waste at their landfill on Tatachilla Road near McLaren Vale, many members of the local community and the City of Onkaparinga were deeply opposed to this development. Local industry was concerned about reputational damage to McLaren Vale's internationally renowned wine region, and residents were not only worried about their health but also about the impact that this could have on property prices in surrounding regions such as Willunga, Maslin Beach and further afield.

Fortunately, the local community successfully campaigned to protect their health and their environment. They petitioned the state government as well as the EPA, which ruled in 2021 that the disposal of PFAS at the landfill would not be allowed to go ahead due to an 'unacceptable level of risk'. It was a relief to many, but the proposal should never have been considered in the first place. It was this proposed PFAS waste dump and the resulting public outcry that prompted the House of Assembly in May 2021 to task the ERDC with investigating and reporting on the management of PFAS in our state. At that time, there was no location whatsoever in South Australia where PFAS could be safely disposed of.

As noted in this report, over the course of the ERDC's inquiry, the EPA developed new siting guidelines for the disposal of PFAS waste in landfills and, rather than continue with the inquiry, the committee chose to be briefed by the EPA. It is good to see these new EPA guidelines map the suitability of PFAS disposal sites with reference to the risks to people and the environment, protected areas such as national parks and wildlife areas, water protection areas, heritage sites, food production areas, prescribed wells areas and Indigenous lands.

The guidelines firmly prevent PFAS waste from being disposed of in inappropriate landfill sites such as the one operated by Southern Waste ResourceCo at McLaren Vale. This is a good thing. Instead, the disposal of PFAS in our state will now occur at the Cleanaway Inkerman landfill site, which is a location consistent with the new guidelines and removes the need to transport PFAS interstate for disposal.

The committee heard from the EPA about the lengthy and extensive process of changing the licence to enable the Inkerman site to accept PFAS waste, which further highlighted the potential risks to human health and the environment posed by PFAS and the importance of storing it as securely as possible.

As a state, we should always be seeking to proactively protect our community from the harmful impacts of PFAS. We have some form on this. South Australia was the first state to ban fluorinated firefighting foams back in 2018. This was explicitly because of the associated environmental and human health risks associated with the use of and subsequent contamination by PFAS.

I was pleased that the committee had the opportunity to hear about the ongoing research into capturing and destroying PFAS, including the research being conducted by scientists at the University of South Australia and the University of Western Australia on a new, environmentally friendly method of breaking down PFAS substances in contaminated waters by using Australian native rushes and constructed floating wetland systems.

The risks of PFAS are clear and they are very real. It makes sense to ensure that dangerous and toxic waste is kept far away from residential areas and, of course, from our food production, because even with the best practice measures in place we cannot guarantee community safety. We must always ensure that the disposal of toxic substances is done in a manner and in a location that is least likely to cause harm. The EPA's development of these new guidelines is a really important step in ensuring that this happens, at least when it comes to the disposal of PFAS. With that, I commend this report.

The Hon. E.S. BOURKE (17:21): In wrapping up and concluding this debate, I would like to thank the Hon. Michelle Lensink and the Hon. Tammy Franks for not only speaking on this important report today but also their work on the Environment, Resources and Development Committee, which is chaired by the member for Badcoe, Jayne Stinson.

As has been mentioned today, the EPA has done important work in mapping out where it is appropriate to be storing PFAS and making sure that safety and environmental impacts are minimised, because we know that there is considerable concern about where PFAS is disposed. We know that governments around the country are taking this seriously and are looking at ways to reduce the impact of PFAS in our community.

Motion carried.