THE FEDERAL government has confirmed it will take steps before the end of the year to act on a landmark United Nations decision - made nearly a decade ago - to phase out the chemical at the centre of the Williamtown scandal.
The chemical perfluorooctane sulfonate [PFOS], which has tainted properties near the Williamtown RAAF base, was listed on the Stockholm Convention in 2009.
Countries which had signed the global treaty had to take steps to restrict its production and use.
But even though the Australian government is a signatory to the convention, it hasn’t ratified the listing, leaving environmentalists perplexed and frustrated.
That could be about to change, with the Department of Environment preparing to release a regulation impact statement for public comment in coming months; one of the steps required in the 'treaty-making process' that can lead to ratification.
If the ratification goes ahead, it could have a major bearing on the cost of the clean up at contaminated sites across the country, include Department of Defence bases at Williamtown, Oakey and Katherine.
This is because ratification would mean Australia would have to accept international standards on the disposal of waste containing PFOS, including a requirement that waste with levels above 50mg/kg was treated in a way that destroyed or irreversibly transformed the compounds.
The matter was addressed in a new draft National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP) for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), an umbrella group of chemicals which includes the chemical PFOS.
It said while many technologies were available in Australia for removing or immobilizing the chemical, few could completely destroy it. Remediation of contaminated sites in Australia was being "hampered" as a result.
The document said the treaty-making process was a priority, so a decision could be made on the national phase out of PFOS.
“The treaty-making process includes analytical, consultative and parliamentary steps,” it said. “These steps are critical to ensure any management measures deliver the desired environmental outcomes and that potential impacts (such as economic impacts on industry) are manageable.”
In her submission on the NEMP, senior adviser to the National Toxics Network, Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, said the comments gave her organisation little confidence, given the listing of PFOS on the Stockholm Convention was nearly a decade old.
“After such a lengthy process, it is expected that the plan would include dates as to when the Australian government would ratify the PFOS listing,” she said.
Dr Lloyd-Smith argued the NEMP favoured a “government and industry viewpoint” on the chemicals, over that of residents grappling with the contamination of their homes.
She suggested that could be because it had been drafted following a confidential national summit, held in April, that her organisation and the general public were blocked from attending.
“Much of the document appears to be aimed at giving comfort to industry and government that action on PFAS will be limited, with the decisions being made using a risk management approach based on erroneous and unsound claims regarding human health impacts,” Dr Lloyd-Smith said.
But the draft plan said it would “build trust and confidence” in the way that PFAS was managed, so that people could enjoy “equivalent protection” from the chemicals wherever they lived in Australia.
It acknowledged that there were thousands of PFAS chemicals that could not be measured in the environment, and that “ambient” concentrations of the chemicals in the environment were “poorly understood”.
Once adopted, the document will be formally reviewed every two years.