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Toxic PFAS chemicals spread in Richmond to riverside soil and recycled water 

Jun 16, 2023

Michael Sainsbury.

The spread of highly toxic PFAS chemicals from the Richmond RAAF base has grown with testing by Hawkesbury City Council and the Western Sydney University finding elevated levels in soil around the collapsed Cornwallis Road site and in recycled “grey” water that is used in the district. Grey water is commonly used for industrial purposes such as irrigation and while not potable, it should be benign.

Australian authorities are generally seen by scientists as lagging in their response to the problems caused by PFAS – and the levels at which PFAS should be considered dangerous – in comparison with the USA and the European Union, for instance. For instance, a drop of PFAS in an Olympic sized swimming pool is toxic. The EPA has been contacted for comment.

The latest tests are the first that appear to have been undertaken – since testing by the Department of Defence between 2017-2019 and comes as concern over PFAS chemicals is rising around the country – and in the Hawkesbury – following a landmark class action settlement between 30,000 landowners and the Department of Defence last month. It is the second of three major class actions against Defence which has so far paid out $244.2 million for diminished property values due to land contaminated with poisonous PFAS riddled fire-fighting chemicals around about a dozen Defence facilities nationally. 

PFAS (Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) is a family of toxins known as “forever chemicals” as they do not break down in nature.  There is growing evidence that they can cause severe, sometimes fatal disease in people and animals who have ongoing exposure to them.

The Rural Fire Service has also begun testing at a range of its facilities around the state as that organisation has used the same toxic foam as the military in fire drills for decades. It is unclear at this stage whether Richmond RFS has been affected but people familiar with the RFS said that the same foams were used by brigades around the state.

Regarding the collapse riverbank site at Cornwallis Road, HCC Infrastructure Services Director Will Barton said:

“The Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Management Area Plan for RAAF Base Richmond identified that the area around Cornwallis was known to have potential PFAS contamination. Due to this, further testing for PFAS was undertaken. That investigation was undertaken by NSW Public Works, on behalf of Council, to understand if any mitigation was required for PFAS as part of the reconstruction of the Cornwallis drain and future Stage 2 earthworks.”

“The investigation found that PFAS was present in levels marginally above the ecological guidelines values for direct exposure,” Barton said.

NSW Public Works consulted the NSW EPA to review the investigation. The NSW EPA found that, considering the area would be limited to site stripping off recently deposited materials and that erosion controls will be utilised for the work, no further consideration of PFAS in soils at the site were considered necessary.”

Western Sydney University told the Hawkesbury Post that it ceased irrigating its lawns, gardens and agricultural fields with locally produced recycled water due to toxic PFAS chemicals being found in testing completed in April.

Western Sydney University has stopped irrigating because PFAS has been discovered in the water.

Concentrations of PFAS were detected at the construction site for the NSW Department of Education’s new Centre of Excellence in Agricultural Education at the University’s Hawkesbury Campus in mid-2022 following environmental testing of the site in the groundwater and stormwater.

“As part of our ongoing testing and monitoring of the site, the University has conducted preliminary testing of water reservoirs on the Hawkesbury Campus that contain grey water, which is used by the University for campus irrigation and fire protection purposes.  The test results, which were received on Friday 28 April 2023, show very low traces of PFAS in those water reservoirs.  The University has notified the Environmental Protection Authority of those results,” a spokesperson for WSU told the Hawkesbury Post

“Whilst access to the reservoirs is restricted and PFAS traces are very low, on Friday 28 April, the University made a decision to discontinue use of the reservoirs until further tests are completed by the University’s consultants.

The Hawkesbury Water Recycling Scheme comprises reclaimed water supplied from Sydney Water Corporation’s (SWC) Richmond Recycled Water Plant” explains a statement on the WSU website. 

The plant is near the university and also adjacent to the Hawkesbury Showground, Hawkesbury Race Club, Sydney Jump Club and a range of other facilities some of which are understood to also use the grey water to both irrigate and water horses. It is unclear at this stage where else the water is used and if SWC has undertaken its own PFAS testing.

The HCC also supplies grey water from its sewerage facilities and it is also unclear this has been tested for PFAS. The HCC was unable to provide comment on this today but has undertaken to provide answers on Monday.

HCC Mayor Sarah McMahon appeared keen to avoid any general responsibility for PFAS in the local government area.

“Council has received regular briefings from the Department of Defence about the PFAS environmental investigation for RAAF Base Richmond. The management of PFAS contamination is a matter for the Australian Government as this is a Federal Government issue arising with the use of PFAs at RAAF Base Richmond,” she told the Hawkesbury Post in response to detailed questions.

It is unclear if Sydney Water or HCC was advised of the toxins in the water by WSU and if so if either body had advised others that are using the same water. 


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