Shellharbour council – which owns the contaminated Albion Park Fire and Rescue NSW training ground where toxic chemicals have been found – has sidestepped questions about its responsibility for ensuring public safety around the site.
Instead, a council spokeswoman deferred to state agencies, saying “it is FRNSW and the EPA’s responsibility to inform community as it is their investigation”.
She also said “queries about potential risks must be directed to FRNSW”.
It has been more than two years since an investigation began into the presence of per-and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] chemicals at the Albion Park training site, which is leased by the council to the government.
For decades, firefighters trained there using a particular type of fire fighting foam containing PFAS chemicals. These have been described as “virtually indestructible” and were previously hailed for their ability to repel grease, oil and water.
In Australia, their use was phased out about 10 years ago due to health concerns, but not before run-off was flushed into the environment following the training exercises.
According to a 2017 independent assessment of water samples at Albion Park, 10 test sites revealed PFAS levels above safe drinking water levels.
The training site had concentrations of the chemicals heavy enough to be classified as a “priority 1 site” for immediate future management.
Located at the corner of Airport Road and Boomerang Drive, within the Illawarra Regional Airport, the contaminated land is opposite the HARS hangar and main entry to the passenger flight terminal.
However, other than a sign advising “No entry. Do not use water” near a pond on site, there remains no clear indication of its potential dangers.
The Department of Health maintains there is no consistent evidence these toxins cause “important” health effects, but in the United States, the EPA has concluded they are a human health hazard that - at high enough levels - can cause immune dysfunction, hormonal interference and certain types of cancer.
Like her council’s management, Shellharbour mayor Marianne Saliba said it was the government’s responsibility for managing the land.
”This land is leased by the state government and they have the responsibility to look after what they are leasing, and for the rehabilitation of that site,” she said.
“We have to trust that the EPA is doing its job.”
However, she will look into whether the city could conduct its own investigations into the land contamination.
“I believe that we need to also be investigating just how significant this is… we’ve seen in the past this happen with other substances like asbestos, where a government has allowed something to be used and then later discovered the danger of it – so we don’t want to wait until it’s too late to find out that there’s significant damage done,” she said.
News of the contamination came as a surprise to the mayor, who said she had been unaware of the full extent of the report findings.
“I think the council should be properly informed, and we are the caretakers of our community,” she said.
“We also need to be informed about the actions the state government is taking to clean up any mess they have made.”
Going forward, the Shellharbour council spokeswoman said a recent letter from FRNSW stated they would continue to engage with the community and would consult with Shellharbour council on determining the next steps and management actions.
Further communication to council from FRNSW is expected in early July, she said.
The council also said:
- Council is relying on the EPA and Fire and Rescue NSW to communicate information about any potential risks with affected property owners and the broader community.
- Fire and Rescue NSW and the EPA are responsible for all notifications and information regarding this issue.
- Community engagement efforts have focused on consulting with property owners in the area surrounding the Albion Park training facility to understand water use within the broader investigation area.
- This involved the distribution of fact sheets, the hosting of a community meeting and an information session in May 2017.
- A water use survey was also distributed to a sample set of landowners within the Albion Park area. The water use survey indicated that respondents mainly used town and rain water.
- The EPA & Fire and Rescue NSW notified residents within a 1.4km radius and sent 1700 fact sheets in 2017. Additionally, 76 questionnaires were sent with 26 completed questionnaires received.