Shine Lawyers is considering a class action for Wodonga residents against environmental PFAS contamination from the Bandiana Military Area.
Similar cases are running in four other areas, including Katherine, where residents are not using bore water and signs have been erected warning against the consumption of river fish.
The Australian Defence Force and other agencies used firefighting Aqueous Film-Forming Foam, containing per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), from the 1970s to mid-2000s.
The presence of PFAS, particularly PFOA and PFOS, in Wodonga is currently being investigated by Defence.
Environmental consultant Golder Associates was commissioned in July to review the historical use of the foam, identify pathways for migration off-site and to sample soil, water and potentially plants and animals.
Shine Lawyers special counsel Joshua Aylward thinks the results of this investigation will ‘send shock-waves through Wodonga’.
“Defence used these chemicals on a 70 to 80-year basis and have identified the bases where they used those chemicals the most, and they became the highest priority,” he said.
“Wodonga is one of those 18 sites, and that’s concerning because it means they think they will find levels off the base.
“At the very first community meeting in Oakey, Defence called it ‘the new asbestos’, which sends shivers down your spine.
“They now say that is not their official position, but they were forced to admit that was said, at a senate inquiry.
“People don’t know what PFAS are, but they know what asbestos is.”
A preliminary report based on limited testing was prepared for Defence last year, which prompted the need for further investigation.
Seven water samples were collected in June 2016 – three within army grounds; one in Bonegilla; and two others; at Whytes Road Killara and Jack in the Box Creek, near Victoria Cross Parade.
At the time, acceptable levels of PFAS in drinking water as outlined in ‘Defence Directive Number Eight’ were used to analyse results, but since then Food Standards Australia New Zealand has developed health-based guidance values, deeming 0.07 micrograms of PFAS per litre as acceptable.
When using these new guidelines to assess the samples collected in 2016, two sites exceed 0.7 ug/L.
The sample collected from Jack in the Box Creek, which is not a water supply source, was seven times higher than the recommended PFOS level for drinking water and three-and-a-half times higher for PFHxS.
The surface water collected from a creek that runs under Whytes Road, adjacent to East Bandiana, was almost double the level for PFOS and PFHxS.
Both samples do not exceed ecological freshwater levels, and if water from those creeks enters into the Murray and Kiewa rivers concentration of PFAS would significantly drop.
Only a detailed study spanning several locations and dates will show the true representation of the chemicals in the environment.
A Defence spokeswoman said North East Water was ‘regularly testing the Wodonga water supply and has not detected PFAS to date’.
“The community’s health and safety is Defence’s primary concern,” she said.
“Defence is committed to being open and transparent about the progress and findings of the investigation at Bandiana.
“Defence has held two community walk-in sessions in Bandiana to provide the community with preliminary findings and an opportunity to speak with representatives from Defence, the contracted investigation team and other relevant government agencies.”
Mr Aylward said the residents most likely to be impacted by PFAS would be those using contaminated bore water for drinking, or consuming produce grown with impacted water.
“Even outside the investigation area in Townsville, there are unacceptable levels coming out of bores and Defence has had to redraw their investigation footprint,” he said.
“In Oakey it spread nine kilometres in a particular direction, in Katherine 18 kilometres, and there were still high levels at that distance.
“It’s not just affecting people close to the base; it’s been used for decades and had a long time to spread.
“People in these towns want to get out from the contamination because it’s going to be there for generations, and there are elderly people who can’t sell their devalued properties so they can go into a home.”
State and federal governments maintain there is no conclusive evidence that PFAS are harmful to human health and the science is still developing around the chemicals.
In an interim position statement from November, the Environment Protection Authority Victoria stated environmental contamination was of growing concern as ‘PFAS have been shown to have adverse impacts on fish and some animals’, and that ‘as a precaution human exposure to PFAS should be minimised’.
An everyday person will already have been exposed to the chemicals in some form, as EPA chief executive Nial Finegan explained.
“As they have heat, water and stain-repelling properties, PFAS have been widely used in a range of industrial and consumer products both in Australia and internationally, including in fire retardants, water-proofing, food preparation, food packaging, furnishings, clothing and recreational equipment,” he said.
“The EPA works closely and cooperatively with Commonwealth agencies to ensure their environmental investigations meet appropriate standards.”
An editorial published last year in the Environmental Science and Technology journal referenced contamination in America as ‘old news’.
“Since 2002, close to 300 papers published in ES&T have documented the presence of these compounds in water supplies, wildlife, and humans,” it read.
“The voluntary end of production of PFOA in the U.S. did not occur until 2015 and industry has continued to use chemicals that can be transformed to PFOA and PFOS in the environment.
“It is time for EPA and other agencies to treat unregulated chemicals more seriously.”
The most extensive contamination in Australia has been detailed by the ABC and Four Corners, including the case of a four-year-old Oakey girl whose PFOS blood levels were 23 times higher than the state average.
A senate committee recommended in 2015 that Defence fund annual blood tests for Oakey residents, and that the federal government ‘commit to voluntarily acquire property and land which is no longer fit for purpose due to PFOS/PFOA contamination’ in the town.
A Defence spokeswoman said blood testing programs were running in Oakey, Williamtown and Katherine ‘because the extent of contamination and exposure pathways at these sites is well understood’.
“Once further investigations of other areas have been completed, and the extent of the contamination and exposure pathways are better understood, the Australian government will be in a position to consider whether it would be appropriate to expand the voluntary blood testing program, epidemiological study and additional mental health and support services to these investigation areas,” she said.
The spokeswoman said defence had ‘not identified any residents within the investigation area that require alternative water supplies’.
“Defence is currently conducting the second stage of the detailed environmental investigation process, a detailed site investigation, at Bandiana,” she said.
“The DSI involves the sampling of soil, sediment, surface water, groundwater, on and near Bandiana to further assess the nature and extent of PFAS contamination.”
Mr Aylward said if he was living in Wodonga, ‘he would want to be having blood testing done’.
“Around the world these levels are totally unacceptable – in America they are blood testing all communities affected by these chemicals,” he said.
“Rural people grow their own food and have livestock, and they are concerned because they rely heavily on their own water sources.
“A couple moths ago I was contacted by people in Wodonga as they had heard from Defence.
“They are really concerned about being in an investigation area and the messages they are getting from Defence seem to contradict what they find online.”
Mr Aylward is in contact with six Wodonga residents and said potential legal action would be guided by further PFAS results.
“I will be in Wodonga in the first quarter of next year to talk about what can be done for the town,” he said.
Indi MP Cathy McGowan said she would follow the issue.
“I encourage those with concerns to get in touch with my Wodonga office to discuss their situation – their questions and comments will be passed on to the appropriate ministers for a response,” she said.
North East Water and Wodonga Council both declined to comment on the issue.
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