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Australian owners and occupiers of sites contaminated with fluorochemicals can now turn to a nationally agreed-upon plan for assistance in how to assess, transport, treat, and dispose of the chemicals.
Federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg and his state and territory counterparts announced their joint approval of a per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals National Environmental Management Plan on Feb. 16, although they signaled there were still policy gaps to be filled.
The country’s leading research body on contaminated sites, the government-funded CRC CARE, said the plan would “materially assist in managing PFAS contamination in Australia.”
CRC CARE program leader Bruce Kennedy told Bloomberg Environment Feb. 20 it was “likely to be a master document for a whole lot of future documents that may come out.”
CRC CARE expects to publish extra guidance to complement the recommendations in the plan, Kennedy said.
The document doesn’t have legislative status, but its endorsement by all environment ministers means it will set the benchmark for the management of PFAS chemicals in Australia.
The plan explicitly lists the types of PFAS management actions typically required to comply with general legislative duties not to cause environmental harm.
These include determining the extent of any PFAS contamination and the environmental values that might be affected, and taking all reasonable and practicable measures to prevent or minimize environmental harm.
The plan incorporates a range of guideline values for the protection of human health and the environment, including human health-based guidance values for soil contaminated by three types of PFAS chemicals—perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, perfluorohexane sulfonic acid, and perfluorooctanoic acid.
It also includes interim soil guideline values for ecological protection, and values for freshwater and marine environments.
In addition, the plan specifies maximum acceptable levels of PFAS contamination in waste intended for disposal in unlined, single-lined, and double-lined landfills.
It includes advice on standard methods for laboratory analysis of PFAS contamination and sets out a future work program that includes finalizing more detailed guidance for water utilities on PFAS in wastewater effluent and biosolids.
The plan also lists a range of treatment technologies available or under trial in Australia, including adsorption, stabilization, reverse osmosis, nanofiltration, and treatment using intense ultrasonic-wave energy.
Law firm Norton Rose Fulbright said the plan “pulls together the myriad of existing guidance values into a single document, which will assist regulators across Australia to apply a consistent approach to regulating PFAS contaminated sites.”
In Feb. 20 comments, Norton Rose Fulbright partner Elizabeth Wild and senior associate Sarah Mansfield noted the plan doesn’t attempt to resolve the uncertainties surrounding the effects of PFAS on human health and the environment.
“The plan also acknowledges that, whilst remediation technologies are developing, much more work is required,” Wild and Mansfield said.
“In these circumstances, the appropriate regulatory response, and the damages to which those impacted by PFAS contamination are entitled, continues to be difficult to determine,” they said.
Chief executive of the Waste and Recycling Industry Council, Max Spedding, welcomed the general thrust of the document.
“It’s good that its out and it’s good that it recognizes that more science is needed,” he told Bloomberg Environment by phone.
“We are concerned at the prescriptive nature of some of the recommendations and suggest the implementation of them be delayed until we have more information,” he said.
The Australian Water Association, which represents utilities that operate water and wastewater treatment plants, also welcomed the plan.
“The plan empowers environment ministers and protection authorities to address and manage PFAS contamination consistently across the country,” it said in a Feb. 20 statement.
The AWA “welcomes the coordinated and cooperative action on this cross-boundary issue,” it said.
The release of the national plan follows a new ban on firefighting foams containing PFAS chemicals introduced earlier this month by the state of South Australia.
The presence of previous PFAS compounds in the environment has been an issue of significant public health concern in several states, particularly near Department of Defence bases where the substances have contaminated groundwater.
Foams containing previous PFAS were once widely used during training exercises at these sites.
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