Melbourne Airport has confirmed contamination caused by toxic chemicals, historically used in firefighting foams at the site, has spread beyond the airport boundaries.
In a statement to the ABC, airport spokesman Grant Smith said the Melbourne Airport Authority (MAA) was contacting a group of landholders to inform them of the contamination.
The MAA will also ask residents and landholders whether they use the surface water flowing through local waterways on their properties.
Mr Smith said the authority believed the health risk posed by the chemical contamination to landholders downstream of the site was low.
“At some times of the year, some of our off-airport testing locations recorded per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) levels in surface water above the current Australian Government guidelines,” he said.
“We’ve conducted a number of detailed risk assessments that indicate any likelihood of human health impact by PFAS contamination for landholders downstream from the airport is low, on the basis that local water courses are not connected to Melbourne’s drinking water catchment.
“We’re currently in the process of getting in touch with individual landholders to talk to them about our research findings, and how they’re using water on their properties.”
Melbourne Airport confirmed to the ABC it has been undertaking an extensive investigation into the presence of PFAS across the airport estate.
This included collecting more than 800 soil samples.
Based on current information available to the ABC it is unclear how far this contamination has spread. The ABC does not have any evidence that private properties have been contaminated.
The airport, working with other stakeholders, are continuing investigations.
Health impacts of chemicals uncertain
Melbourne Airport at Tullamarine, roughly 20 kilometres north-west of the Melbourne city centre, sits between two north-south flowing rivers: Maribyrnong River to the west and Moonee Ponds Creek to the east.
PFAS chemicals accumulate over time and the health effects of exposure to the chemicals is a matter of dispute.
In the United States, a major epidemiological study linked one of the group of PFAS chemicals to six human diseases, including two types of cancer.
The Australian government maintains there is limited evidence of links between the chemicals and disease, but notes health effects cannot be ruled out based on the current facts.
In October last year the ABC confirmed PFAS chemicals have been detected at more than 70 sites across the country, including Defence bases, civilian and aviation firefighting facilities, and at industrial sites like Esso Australia’s gas plant in Longford in Victoria’s southeast.
There is a growing list of sites where these chemicals have spread off site and contaminated surrounding waterways, land, and in some cases the food chain, including livestock.
On Wednesday, it was confirmed that a federal parliamentary inquiry will examine the government’s management of PFAS contamination at and around Defence bases.
Toxic foam used at airport training ground, reports show
The ABC pursued an investigation into contamination at Melbourne Airport after former and current aviation firefighters raised concerns about the amount of the toxic, aqueous-film forming firefighting foam (AFFF) used in the past, at the Melbourne Aviation Rescue and Firefighting Services’ old training ground at the airport.
That drill ground, which sits on the northwest corner of the airport, was home to a national training college for aviation firefighters across Australia from 1972 to 1998.
Reports obtained by the ABC via Freedom of Information show toxic foam was used at that site for about two decades.
Airservices Australia, the federal government agency responsible for the aviation firefighting service at Melbourne Airport, has been investigating current levels of PFAS contamination at that site.
The ABC understands the training ground is just one of several locations around the airport where the toxic foam has been used.
Airservices stopped using the AFFF toxic foam at all sites in the early 2000s. The national training college has since moved to a new facility adjacent to the airport, and a different foam is used.
In March, Airservices said the facility “features environmental control systems designed to minimise the impact of the training activity on the surrounding environment and operates with only PFAS-free training foam”.
“At Melbourne Airport, we have recently completed a preliminary site investigation (PSI) and we are currently undertaking quality assurance to finalise the PSI report,” an Airservices spokesman said.
“We anticipate the report to be released publicly in coming months.
“We will also consult relevant stakeholders, including Melbourne Airport, the Commonwealth Airport Regulator and relevant state government agencies to determine what appropriate action is required.”
Contamination found in routine testing, airport says
The Melbourne Airport is on commonwealth land, and ultimately regulated by the federal government. The MAA describes itself as the “landlord” of the property and Airservices, along with airlines and other agencies, as tenants of the airport.
Melbourne Airport said the off-site tests for PFAS were part of routine water testing and it had not done a “bespoke” PFAS investigation in off-airport waterways.
It has notified several stakeholders including Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority (EPA) of the preliminary findings.
“For the most part, contamination exists within areas leased by tenants, so we are working with each of those tenants on their plans,” Mr Smith said.
Melbourne Airport confirmed it has been undertaking clean-up activities on the site, which includes digging up contaminated soil.
“From an estate-wide perspective our focus is on tackling the challenge of stopping identified pollution from leaving the airport through surface water or ground water,” Mr Smith said.
“As an interim solution we have been removing contaminated soil and containing it … but we are also looking at long-term containment and treatment of contaminated soil.”
In November last year, The Guardian reported that the Brisbane Airport Corporation was suing Airservices Australia over the PFAS contamination at Brisbane Airport.