Buyers ‘not informed’

Liz Bell

PROSPECTIVE purchasers of houses and land near Esso’s Longford Gas Plants and the RAAF Base, East Sale, are not being informed about the potential dangers of chemicals that have leached into water and soil around the sites, an advocate groups claims.

The Gippsland representative of the Coalition Against PFAS, Tracey Anton, says the current health advice on the dangers of PFAS chemicals have led communities to believe that living near contaminated areas was safe and considered “low risk”.

An independent expert health panel established by the Australian Government (which studied both Australian and international health evidence) recently concluded “there is mostly limited, or in some cases no evidence, that human exposure to PFAS is linked with human disease”, despite recommending that human exposure be “minimised” because of the inability of the compounds to break down readily in the body.

Ms Anton said although the evidence on health effects associated with PFAS exposure was limited, current reviews of health and scientific research provided consistent reports of associations with several health outcomes, in particular increased cholesterol, increased uric acid, reduced kidney function, altered markers of immunological response, altered thyroid and sex hormone levels, later menarche and earlier menopause, and lower birth weight.

The Gippsland Times believes there are currently at least two properties in the affected areas listed for sale, with one sales site describing the dams and lagoons from the seasonal Carrs Creek as providing “excellent” water.

Last year, it was revealed that traces of PFAS had been detected in Carrs Creek and nearby Lake Reeve.

There is no suggestion by the Gippsland Times that local real estate agents are acting inappropriately. Rather, they are having to rely on inadequate and potentially outdated information from authorities.

Ms Anton said she believed properties around contaminated sites at Longford and East Sale were being sold off to purchasers not aware of the “real” health risk.

In an ABC Gippsland radio interview on October 12 2017, Environmental Protection Authority chief environmental scientist Andrea Hinwood told listeners “we just don’t know what the human health impacts are” when quizzed on the potential dangers of PFAS contamination.

And at a community information session in Sale last year, Ms Hinwood told concerned residents living in contaminated areas to try to “minimise” their exposure to dust, after an East Sale RAAF Base neighbour asked about the contamination impacts to his young family, and was unsure whether he should be worried about his children playing in potentially contaminated dirt around the house.

“A property neighbouring one of Esso’s fenced-off dams was purchased last year based on government’s ‘no consistent evidence of human health impacts’ advice, which was already outdated and contrary to what updated studies and research has been revealing,” Ms Anton said.

Now, with two more properties bordering the affected areas up for grabs, Ms Anton said it was time for government authorities to “stand up and act”.

“There is potential legal implications in the future on the sale of these properties because there is no opportunity for the buyer to be aware of PFAS contamination via Consumer Affairs Victoria or from the inadequate interim health advice promoted by the state and federal government,” she said.

“This is a much bigger problem that people are being told, and it’s fair to say that the government is not protecting innocent property seekers in PFAS contaminated areas because government’s own information is irresponsible.”

In 2017, Exxon Mobil revealed it was considering a buy up of farmland near the plant, after testing revealed that PFAS had leached to at least five farms neighbouring the Longford plant, and elevated levels of the contaminant were detected in 45 cattle and 45 sheep on three of the properties.

Seven dams were consequently fenced off to prevent livestock from drinking the water.

Fire fighting foam containing PFAS was used at the plant until 2008.

Last year, farmers near the gas plant and the RAAF Base, East Sale, were warned not to eat meat, offal or dairy from their own livestock because of the contamination, but, bizarrely, there were no restrictions on them selling the same products.

It is believed one compensation case instigated by a farmer near the base is currently before the courts.

Australia’s environmental health authorities came under fire in June when they went against international trends to issue weaker safety standards for fire fighting chemicals that were once widely used around the country.

A Defence spokesperson said the department was working closely with the Department of the Environment and Energy PFAS Taskforce, which is coordinating the whole-of-government responses to PFAS.

He said Defence was currently monitoring PFAS levels within the East Sale “management area”.

“This is being done in line with the Ongoing Monitoring Plan developed as part of the PFAS Management Area Plan,” he said.

“Defence is committed to regularly updating affected communities throughout the investigation, remediation and monitoring process and community engagement continues to occur where detailed environmental investigations into PFAS are underway or have been completed by Defence.”

The spokesman said sampling involved the collection of groundwater, surface water and sediment samples, both on and off the base.

The sampling includes measurements of surface water levels (where present) in drains leaving the base, with the results of the sampling, and the surface water level measurements, to be used by Defence to determine any changes in PFAS concentrations in the management area, and to better understand the movement of PFAS via the drainage network.

“This will assist Defence to identify next steps, which may include identification of potential treatment options to reduce PFAS concentrations at the source areas and methods to minimise migration of PFAS via the drainage network,” he said.

The sampling is expected to be completed by the end of 2019, with detailed interpretation of the data to identify potential treatment options and management controls by early 2020.

The Environmental Protection Authority, which uses its statutory powers under the Environment Protection Act 1970 to hold polluters and landholders to account, issuing remedial notices requiring sites to be investigated and cleaned up, was contacted for comment.

It has served Esso with a number of regulatory notices with respect to PFAS contamination at Longford Plants.

Esso’s website states that, in some cases, it has implemented “precautionary controls” to minimise the exposure of stock to contaminated water while the investigation continues.

Consumer affairs advises potential buyers to complete their due diligence checklist.

“You should consider whether past activities, including the use of adjacent land, may have caused contamination at the site and whether this may prevent you from doing certain things to or on the land in the future,” its website states.

For more information, visit www.consumer.vic.gov.au/duediligencechecklist.