A Federal Government aviation agency has knowingly downplayed its role in contaminating airport sites with toxic firefighting foam, despite internal documents uncovered by the ABC that confirm the agency’s involvement.
A Stakeholder Engagement Plan by Airservices Australia — written as advice for staff engaging with media and community groups — included the key message that the “use of firefighting foam may have resulted in the presence” of toxic chemicals at some airports.
But other internal backgrounding documents on the toxic foam clearly stated that use of the chemicals by the government agency “has resulted” in the dispersal of contaminating chemicals at sites.
The stakeholder plan, obtained by the ABC under federal Freedom of Information (FOI) provisions, shows Airservices Australia conducted airport site assessments in 2007/08 at aviation firefighter training grounds and stations with chemicals in soil and groundwater.
The strategy plan spelt out detailed options for dealing with other government agencies, Airservices staff, airports, unions and politicians over the contamination caused by use of firefighting chemicals.
Among the “stakeholder” concerns canvassed was legal action against Airservices by airports, landowners and local communities.
The document also included warnings about potential interest from media or local interest groups that led to “political interest”.
Other Airservices Australia documents revealed aviation firefighters across Australia in 2013 had up to 20 times the normal level of toxic PFAS chemicals in their blood.
But Airservices has blocked the ABC’s request to release all documents provided to its board about firefighting foam contamination at airports across the country.
The ABC lodged a series of FOI requests with Airservices, seeking information about contamination from toxic PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam used at airports until 2010.
In one request, the ABC asked for access to any documents related to health or financial risks associated with PFAS contamination at airports that were provided to the full Airservices Australia board in 2007-2008, and in the past year.
Airservices Australia chose to downplay its role in contaminating airport sites with toxic firefighting foam. (ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)
Airservices said it had found 28 documents that fell within the scope of the ABC’s request, but refused to release any of those documents, citing a number of different legal exemptions in the FOI Act.
It said some of the documents were exempt because of legal professional privilege.
Some are apparently Cabinet documents and others related to the agency’s business affairs or commonwealth and state relations, according to its FOI application response.
The ABC will appeal against the decision.
Airservices Australia said in a statement its board and management “have been open and transparent in their approach to PFAS management since concerns first emerged in 2013”.
Toxic chemicals detected in Tugun water plant
The ABC can also reveal PFAS chemicals have also now been detected at the Tugun Desalination Plant, which operates close to the Gold Coast Airport.
South East Queensland Water, which runs the plant, said it had twice detected the chemicals at low levels.
It said local water supply was safe to drink and not at risk.
The plant takes water from more than one kilometre off Kirra Beach.
South East Queensland Water said the saltwater goes through reverse osmosis purification technology, which is a “proven, suitable and effective barrier for PFAS treatment”.
The chemicals have now been detected at Coolangatta Creek, at a lake near the Kirra caravan park, on Bilinga and Kirra Beaches and in residential bores close to the airport.