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Estimates: Environment and Communications Legislation Committee: Environment and Energy Portfolio: Clean Energy Regulator

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 16 Mar 2018

Monday, 26 February 2018

PFOS Williamtown

Senator RHIANNON: I have questions about the PFAS and PFOA contamination arising from the use of firefighting contaminants. First off, I'd just like to understand the interactions between the environment department and the New South Wales environment department on this issue.

Mr McNee: The department has been working closely with environment protection agencies around the development of a National Environment Management Plan. That's a particular plan that environment ministers recently endorsed. That focuses on setting a set of standards and a framework within which PFAS contamination can be considered in a consistent way across all states and jurisdictions.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say a set of standards, are you referring there to the difference between—I think it was last year—when there was a change in what were acceptable levels of these contaminates in water. Is that what you're referring to, or is it other matters?

Mr McNee: That's what I'm referring to. As a part of that process, the National Environmental Management Plan looked at existing frameworks for action in Australia. There were two in particular that we looked at closely. One was the National Environment Protection Measure for contaminated land, which sets out a framework that the Commonwealth and states have already adopted. It is really about how you diagnose particular issues with contamination. Then we looked at the Water Quality Guidelines, which is a set of guidelines that apply to a range of contaminants in water. We used the interim levels that have been identified through that process. They are still going through the final process of endorsement, but in essence they have been picked up in the National Environmental Management Plan.

Senator RHIANNON: Is this part of FSANZ's work?

Mr McNee: No. FSANZ's work is focused exclusively around human health, and particularly around drinking water. FSANZ has set particular standards around drinking water and those are being managed through the Department of Health.

Senator RHIANNON: You are referring to the tolerable daily intake, the TDI? Mr McNee: That is another element of the FSANZ's work. Not only have they set the drinking water standard but they have also set tolerable daily intakes around some foods or some plant material. Senator RHIANNON: What you're talking in terms of the environmental standards is quite separate from that, is it?

Mr McNee: I'm actually referring to water quality standards that relate specifically to environmental standards—so, for where you would expect the impact to be at particular concentrations.

Senator RHIANNON: This chemical bio-accumulates, and that's extraordinary. It's like it is a classic example of where humans are being too clever by half, and the chemicals never break down, so they just keep on accumulating. Is there a precautionary approach when you are determining what these levels should be, considering that it just keeps on accumulating?

Mr McNee: Yes. As I said, the water quality guidelines deal with a range of potential contaminants in water, but when it comes to the contaminants that have the characteristics of persistence in the environment—high toxicity and bio-accumulation—then there are particular elements of how those levels are calculated that take account of that. Usually those levels are lower than they would be, because you need to account for the potential for bio-accumulation or biomagnification in the environment.

Senator RHIANNON: Is this same test you would do for people's eggs, veggies, beef or cattle?

Mr McNee: No. The methodology that's applied to develop the particular standards is consistent. It looks at a range of things, but mainly actual studies that have been undertaken, usually on aquatic species, to determine particular curves of impact and the like. It's quite different from the tolerable daily intakes for FSANZ, but it is based on data that has been collected on the impacts of things like PFAS or PFOS on fauna.

Senator RHIANNON: I'm still trying to get my head around the difference. You're talking about environment, and then there are the human impacts on the people that are consuming. Are they completely separate or is there a bit of crossover?

Mr McNee: In the way the standards are applied, they're quite different. Tolerable daily intakes, as I said, are set by the health department but specifically relate to the amount of food that can be consumed that might contain PFAS, so are directly relatable back to human consumption of particular food. The water quality standards relate to what we think the impacts on the environment might be from certain levels of PFAS.

Senator RHIANNON: Farmers in Williamtown have told me they've been told not to eat beef from the cattle, but that it's okay to sell the cattle.

Mr McNee: That's a question that you'll have to put to the health department.

Senator RHIANNON: You're not looking at the accumulation of these chemicals in animals?

Mr McNee: Not as it relates to food; we are looking as it relates to the environmental impact of PFAS.

Senator RHIANNON: What about fish in the sea? Did you have anything to do with studies for the fishers? For a while the fishers near Williamtown didn't get compensation. Are your studies informing that?

Mr McNee: No. Those studies were undertaken particularly to make determinations around human health.

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