Toxic firefighting chemicals have been found in the soil and groundwater at the former Hamilton Fire Station, bringing the spectre of Williamtown’s PFAS nightmare into the heart of Newcastle.
It is unclear how much threat the contamination poses to human health, but a consultant’s report on the Hamilton site recommends the NSW Environment Protection Authority assess potential risks to residents within a 500-metre radius.
Tests on the 900-square metre block in Belford Street show per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination levels up to 100 times greater than health guidelines for recreational water.
The test results raise questions about other suburban fire stations across Newcastle and NSW, some of which are being sold off as the government replaces them, and whether they should be tested and remediated before passing into private hands.
The state government sold the 90-year-old Hamilton station in late 2016 for $1.96 million to Cardiff company SNL Building Constructions, which lodged plans in April 2017 to convert the main building into a house and erect five three-storey townhouses on the block.
The plans attracted 93 objections from nearby residents when they were placed on public exhibition a year ago, before the PFAS was discovered.
Now the development is back out on public exhibition at Newcastle City Council with a remediation plan after consultants Environmental and Safety Professionals discovered PFAS on the site during inspections from April to August last year.
A spokesman for the developer said SNL would liaise with the council and the EPA in early 2019 “with the aim of having the DA determined, which will also facilitate remediation”.
The Newcastle Herald has been told the site’s potential contamination was not disclosed in sale contracts.
Residents inside the Williamtown red zone have been battling the Department of Defence for more than three years over PFAS contamination which has left their properties virtually worthless.
The Herald reported two weeks ago that PFAS had been found in groundwater at the former BHP steelworks site beside the Hunter River.
Dixon Street resident Paul Shearston, who lives across the road from Hamilton Fire Station, said the government bore a “substantial responsibility” to remediate such sites before they were sold.
“I think that now there is a new awareness that any place there’s been firefighting facilities these chemicals have been widely used and they are probably contaminated,” he said.
“They knew about them but didn’t know they were dangerous; now they know about them and that they are dangerous, although I don’t think Defence is admitting they’re as dangerous as people think.
“It’s opening a Pandora’s box. It has been identified in a number of sites. We’ve now got an urban site, and there are probably other urban sites which are in the same state.”
A remediation report for the Hamilton site, prepared by ESP and reviewed by an EPA-accredited auditor, recommends removing soil across 128 square metres to a depth of about one metre.
This section of the site corresponds with proposed gardens in the development. The rest of the block will be covered with concrete or bitumen.
It says leachate tests from one borehole indicate “high PFOS concentrations” which “exceed landfill acceptance criteria, including for double composite-lined landfills”.
PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonate) is among the PFAS group of chemicals, which do not break down and have been linked in some studies to a range of health problems. A federal parliamentary inquiry recommended in early December that they be banned.
The ESP report says samples from three monitoring wells at Hamilton “exceeded both fresh/marine water and recreational water criteria for PFOS and exceeded recreational water criteria for PFHxS”.
It says contamination of Styx Creek, about 900 metres to the north-west, is unlikely, but “due to reported ecological exceedances and PFAS mobility, this pathway cannot be discounted”.
The report recommends the EPA assess if and how neighbours within a 500-metre radius of the fire station use groundwater.
“The current use of groundwater by nearby residents and if there is an exposure pathway is unknown,” it says.
“Further assessment of potential risks to offsite aquatic ecosystems and potential risks to domestic users of groundwater offsite is required.
“This will be a separate process to develop a plan to assess off-site groundwater use and PFAS levels in groundwater within a radius of 500m under the direction of NSW PFAS EPA office.”
Samples from across the block showed PFOS levels above guidelines for sites with “accessible soils”. Two samples from the eastern side of the block had PFOS concentrations of 3.3 milligrams per kilogram, above criteria for sites with “limited access to soils”.
The soil contamination levels are similar to those found at a former fire training area at Williamtown air base and published in a RAAF environmental assessment in December 2017.
A Fire and Rescue NSW spokesperson said the organisation was taking a “risk-based approach across its portfolio in consultation with the NSW EPA to determine if any of its stations are at risk and require further investigation”.
“FRNSW will continue to provide updates on its investigations through its website,” the spokesperson said.