There was no regulatory control … that created a situation where there were no specific guideline numbers they could use or rely on.”
Professor Taylor’s report reveals there are three other sites in NSW aside from Williamtown that are being managed for PFOS and PFOA contamination, including a Fuchs Lubricants factory in Wickham and a power station at Colongra near Lake Munmorah.
However because the management of contaminated land by the EPA requires a “trigger” that does not exist for PFOS or PFOA, those sites are only being monitored because of other contamination issues.
While he was careful not to be too critical of the EPA – saying it was “a sign of maturity in an organisation to accept their failings” – the report details how after becoming aware of the contamination at the Wickham site in 2013 it was not until October 2015, after the Williamtown scandal became public, that it requested an update.
Similarly, the report notes that after “early engagement with NSW fire services as early as July 2011” it was not until November 2015 that the EPA again contacted NSW Fire and Rescue and the Rural Fire Service about PFOS.
His report also detailed short-comings in the access EPA officers have to information, pointing out that after it was made aware of PFOS contamination by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme in 2004 it received at least six subsequent alerts about the contaminants.
However that information “may not be being disseminated as effectively as it could” throughout the EPA, and “some regional staff members were not aware of the NICNACS reports”.
It also describes how a “very limited” budget means accessing peer-reviewed literature is “cumbersome”, which may have been why a Newcastle EPA officer looked up PFOS and PFOA on Wikipedia when he was first made aware of it.
Professor Taylor is known globally as an expert on lead pollution, and said that while the study of PFOS and PFOS was growing rapidly there was still a way to go.
“We are at the infancy of understanding, relatively,” he said.
However he said it was “quite clear” that there is “growing acceptance” that the chemicals are “persistent and toxic, not only to wildlife but to humans” and that there was “some evidence that suggests the chemicals may be related to cancers”.
Defence did not emerge unscathed, with the report drawing attention to several inconsistencies in statements made by the Department in relation to the chemicals.
Professor Taylor's report stated the capability for PFOS analysis has been available in Australia since at least 2005, even though Defence officials have been quoted saying an accepted means of testing for PFOS/PFOA contamination in Australia did not become available until 2009.
The report also questioned why a Defence representative told an inter-agency meeting in October 2015 that it was unaware of any other sites in New South Wales besides Williamtown that were contaminated with the chemicals, when it was aware the RAAF Base site at Richmond had contamination issues as a result of the firefighting foam.
It suggested a regulator be established for Defence.
"It is clear the arrangements for regulating Defence activities that impinge upon NSW territory are not operating satisfactorily," the report said.
Despite Professor Taylor’s criticisms of the EPA, he said it would be "disingenuous" to attack the agency for its response since the Williamtown contamination scandal broke last September, which has seen "millions of dollars" poured into the problem.
It was estimated the agency's program to address PFOS/PFOA contamination in New South Wales is costing $2.36 million over two years.
NSW Environment Minister Mark Speakman welcomed that finding in a statement released on Monday afternoon, while acknowledging the report had found the historical management of the chemicals could have been improved.
“[The report] has found the EPA’s future PFC (perfluorinated chemicals) program is “structured and appropriate”,” Minister Speakman said.
“I am pleased the EPA’s recent management of emerging contaminants was also recognised.”
Professor Taylor’s final report is expected to be released before the end of the year.