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Fire Fighting Foam (PFAS) Investigation

What are PFAS?

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as perfluorinated chemicals, are a class of manufactured chemicals that have been used since the 1950s to make commercial and industrial products that resist heat, stains, grease and water, including ‘Scotchguard’, non-stick cookware products and fire-fighting foams. There are many types of PFAS, with the best known examples being perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate acid (PFHxS).

These chemicals have been identified worldwide as emerging contaminants. Some PFAS have been shown to be toxic to some animals, and because they don’t break down in the environment, have potential to bioaccumulate in plants and animals. National health authorities advise that there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse health effects. However, because these compounds are persistent, human exposure should be minimised as a precaution.

A PFAS interagency working group (PFASIWG) was established in April 2016 to implement a co-ordinated approach to the investigation and response to potential environmental and health issues related to PFAS. Membership comprises representatives from NT government agencies including the NT Department of Health (DoH); NT Department of Primary Industry and Resources; Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority (NT EPA); Darwin International Airport; and the Commonwealth Departments of Defence and Infrastructure and AirServices Australia.

The PFASIWG developed and coordinates implementation of the Northern Territory PFAS Legacy Site Investigation Strategy. This strategy guides an expanded investigation into the presence of PFAS in water and soils at locations where they may have been used in large quantities in the NT, including airports, firefighting training facilities and some industrial sites.

Water testing in the Katherine Region

PWC has developed an integrated water management strategy for the Katherine water supply. This strategy aims to minimise the amount of PFAS in the water supply.

Monitoring results for the Katherine water supply system, which is sampled weekly, are updated monthly on the PWC web site. PWC have reported that four individual samples in the Katherine public water supply have exceeded health based guidance values since PFAS testing began in November 2016. However the average level is less than the guidance value. These fluctuations are likely to continue.

The Federal Chief Medical Officer and Northern Territory Chief Health Officer have advised that the Katherine town water supply is safe to drink and that there is minimal risk to human health posed by short-term exceedances of the tolerable daily intake for drinking water.

While the NT Government works with the Department of Defence on a long term solution, including new water sources and advanced water treatment technologies the Northern Territory Government has announced water conservation measures for Katherine, to help reduce overall demand and keep the use of ground water to a minimum. The measures will commence 21 August 2017:

  • odd numbered properties are permitted to irrigate Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from 6:00pm to 8:00am
  • even numbered properties are permitted to irrigate Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday from 6:00pm to 8:00am
  • no watering of hard surfaces
  • hand held watering via a bucket or watering can is permitted at any time.

To support these compulsory water conservation measures, Power and Water is rolling out the Living Water Smart program in Katherine.

Additionally the Department of Defence will provide an interim water treatment plant to reduce the amount of (PFAS) in the Katherine town water supply. This water treatment plant will be operational in the final quarter of 2017 and will act as an interim measure to assist in reducing PFAS concentrations in the bore water component of the Katherine town water supply. Read about the Katherine Region water testing.

Rapid and Ludmilla Creeks

A joint investigation by the DoH and NT EPA in February last year identified the presence of PFAS in the waters of Rapid Creek and Ludmilla Creek.

Drinking water from Rapid Creek or Ludmilla Creek is not advised due to fluctuating levels of microorganisms, and it is understood that groundwater is not extracted for human consumption. The Northern Territory Department of Health issued a precautionary health advisory in May 2016 regarding the consumption of aquatic foods such as fish and shellfish from these creeks until further testing is complete.

The levels of PFAS chemicals have been measured in various species of aquatic foods from Ludmilla Creek and Rapid Creek. The first phase of testing indicated that PFAS are present in molluscs; and resulted in a second phase of testing of a different range of aquatic foods.

Results for the initial (Phase 1) investigation were released in 2016. The Phase 1 investigation report PDF (975.4 KB) has since been revised to reflect new health based guidance values published by Food Standards Australia New Zealand in April this year. The Phase 2 investigation report PDF (805.3 KB) also reflects the new national guidance values. The Minister for Health announced the release of the reports on 27 July 2017. The reports indicate that:

  • PFAS chemicals are present in aquatic foods like long bums, periwinkles, crustaceans and fish; although those foods can be eaten without exceeding the recommended total dietary intake.
  • Fish and other aquatic species are highly nutritious foods and a source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals and should be eaten as part of a varied and balanced diet. However overconsumption of fish and other seafood is not recommended because it may lead to potentially higher intake of harmful substances such as mercury.
  • The presence of PFAS in Rapid Creek and Ludmilla Creek does not alter the recommended maximum fish consumption to avoid excessive mercury intake (an average of 3,150 gram serves of these foods per week for an adult and two serves for an expectant or pregnant woman or a child). People are reminded to adhere to the fish consumption guidelines published by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

The studies increase the understanding of PFAS in Darwin waterways and assist investigations including the ongoing Detailed Site Investigation for RAAF Base Darwin being undertaken by the Australian Department of Defence. Imminent finalisation of draft ANZECC interim water quality trigger levels for PFAS will be important in assessing the potential for any ecological impacts from PFAS in Rapid Creek and Ludmilla Creek.

Defence bases

In September 2015 the Department of Defence and NSW Environment Protection Authority released information about the discovery of chemical contamination from PFAS in surface water, ground water and fish, near the Williamtown RAAF base in the Hunter Valley. Further contamination has been identified around the Oakey RAAF base in Queensland and the former Country Fire Authority (CFA) Training College in Fiskville, Victoria.

The Department of Defence has carried out preliminary sampling to characterise the presence of PFAS compounds near RAAF Base Darwin, RAAF Base Tindal and Robertson Barracks. See information on the preliminary sampling program.

RAAF Base Darwin and RAAF Base Tindal are prioritised and investigation work commenced in March 2017. The Detailed Site Investigation for Robertson Barracks commenced in 2017. Department of Defence are expecting that the Detailed Site Investigations to be finalised and released by January 2018 and the Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessments to be finalised and released by April 2018.

The NT Government is represented at the project control group that is overseeing Defence detailed environmental investigations in the NT and is working with Defence to ensure the investigation process is comprehensive, efficient and transparent.

Community Consultation

Department of Defence hosted community ‘walk in’ consultation sessions for RAAF Base Tindal, RAAF Base Darwin, and Robertson Barracks to provide further information to interested community members about the response of PFAS contamination at and from Defence sites.

Community consultation sessions were held for:

  • RAAF Base Tindal - November 2016, April 2017, June 2017, October 2017, December 2017, March 2018, June 2018 and September 2018.
  • RAAF Base Darwin - November 2016, March 2017, June 2017, December 2017, February 2018, June 2018 and November 2018.
  • Robertson Barracks - November 2016, March 2017, September 2017, June 2018, and August 2018.

Environmental reports

  • RAAF Base Tindal
    • September 2018 - Department of Defence, RAAF Base Tindal, Supplementary Detailed Site Investigation Report
    • June 2018 - Department of Defence, RAAF Base Tindal, Human Health Risk Assessment
    • February 2018 - Department of Defence, RAAF Base Tindal, Detailed Site Investigation Report
    • January 2018 - Department of Defence, RAAF Base Tindal, Interim Human Health Risk Assessment
    • September 2016 - Department of Defence, RAAF Base Tindal, Preliminary Sampling Program

    The reports can be found on the RAAF Base Tindal PFAS Investigation and Management Program, Publication website.

  • RAAF Base Darwin
    • November 2018 - Department of Defence, RAAF Base Darwin, Supplementary Detailed Site Investigation Report
    • November 2018 - Department of Defence, RAAF Base Darwin, Ecological Risk Assessment
    • June 2018 - Department of Defence, RAAF Base Darwin, Human Health Risk Assessment
    • February 2018 - Department of Defence, RAAF Base Darwin, Detailed Site Investigation Report
    • September 2016 - Department of Defence, RAAF Base Darwin, Preliminary Sampling Program

    The reports can be found on the RAAF Base Darwin PFAS Investigation and Management Program, Publication website.

  • Robertson Barracks
    • August 2018 - Department of Defence, Robertson Barracks, Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment
    • June 2018 - Department of Defence, Robertson Barracks, Detailed Site Investigation Report
    • September 2016 - Department of Defence, Robertson Barracks, Preliminary Sampling Program

    The reports can be found on the Robertson Barracks PFAS Investigation and Management Program, Publication website.

Further information about the Defence National PFAS environmental investigation program, including the Northern Territory Investigation sites, can be found on the Defence website and via the Defence national hotline: 1800 365 414.

New FSANZ Health Based Guidance Values

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) was contracted by the Australian Department of Health in June 2016 to develop new national health based guidance values for PFAS to replace the interim Environmental Health Standing Committee guidelines released on 16 June 2016. FSANZ has provided the Commonwealth with a PFAS hazard assessment report (the FSANZ PFAS Report), which details the development of Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) values for PFAS. This report forms the basis of the new Commonwealth guidelines.

A TDI is the amount of a chemical in food or drinking water that can be ingested over a lifetime without appreciable risk to the consumer. The TDI values proposed in the FSANZ PFAS Report are much more conservative than the interim health reference values and generally more consistent with those developed by the US EPA in 2016, which are the most conservative across the world.

The Commonwealth released new health based guidance value for PFOS and PFOA on 3 April 2017, including tolerable daily intakes for each, as well as new drinking water and recreational water quality guidelines and accompanying facts sheets on PFAS.

These new national health based guidance values have been used to compare and update sampling results for fish, crab, drinking water and recreational water. All NT sampling results have been reassessed against the new Commonwealth guidelines undertaken by Charles Darwin University and University of Queensland.

Eating fish containing PFAS chemicals

Some wild-caught fish species and bushfoods in certain areas of the Top End contain small amounts of per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The health risk of PFAS increases if fish, shellfish or crustaceans from contaminated areas are eaten regularly over a long period. Risks to tourists and visitors who may occasionally eat fish from the affected areas are very low.

You can still safely eat fish from the Top End, but some types of fish, shellfish and crustaceans should be limited because of higher PFAS levels.

You should limit the amount of fish you eat from the following areas:

  • Katherine River (between Donkey Camp Weir and Daly River)
  • Tindal Creek
  • Rapid Creek
  • Ludmilla Creek.

For information about fishing in Darwin creeks refer to  Fishing in Darwin creeks factsheet  PDF (102.7 KB) and the Fishing in Darwin creeks poster PDF (582.2 KB).

For information about fishing in the Katherine area refer to Fishing in Katherine area creeks factsheet  PDF (202.8 KB) and the Fishing in Katherine area poster PDF (563.0 KB).

For further information refer to the NT Government website.

2019 Revised enHealth Guidance Statements

The National Health and Medical Research Council has released Guidance on Per and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Recreational Water 2019 PDF (1.1 MB). enHealth have also released factsheets relating to this guidance document that are listed below:

Consultation on the Regulation Impact Statement for a national phase out of PFOS

The Department of the Environment and Energy has prepared a Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) for consultation on options for a national phase-out of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and related chemicals, including its salts and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride (PFOSF). The proposed national regulation of PFOS would establish an integrated approach to the management of these chemicals throughout their life cycle.  The regulation will support strategies from each jurisdiction to manage and regulate PFOS to reduce the risks to human health and the environment.

The consultation RIS proposes an integrated national approach to managing PFOS chemicals to minimise future emissions, in accordance with the globally accepted standards established by the Stockholm Convention.

The consultation RIS is open for comment until Monday 26 February 2018.

For further information please refer to Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment website.

PFAS NEMP version 2

Australia's Environment Ministers have endorsed the country's first PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP). The PFAS NEMP provides governments with a consistent, practical, risk-based framework for the environmental regulation of PFAS-contaminated materials and sites. The PFAS NEMP has been developed as an adaptive plan, able to respond to emerging research and knowledge.

The PFAS NEMP is a reference on the state of knowledge related to the environmental regulation of PFAS. It represents a how-to guide for the investigation and management of PFAS contamination and waste management, including recommended approaches, which will be called upon to inform actions by EPAs and other regulators.

PFAS NEMP version 2.0 was agreed by Heads of EPAs in October 2019, has been endorsed by Environment Ministers and is being implemented in the Northern Territory. This version supersedes the first version of the NEMP published in 2018.

The PFAS NEMP 2.0 provides new and revised guidance on four of the areas that were identified as urgent priorities in the first version of the NEMP:

  1. Environmental guideline values
  2. Soil reuse
  3. Wastewater management
  4. On-site containment

Read the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan, January 2020.

Read more on PFAS on the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment's website.

In addition, the revised PFAS Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) and its revised appendices A and C; the new National PFAS Position Statement can be accessed through the Australian Government's PFAS.

Inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is currently inquiring into the management of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination in and around Defence bases. For more information about the Inquiry, or to provide/read a submission, go to Parliament of Australia's website.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Previous guidance information

Other useful links

Media releases


25 August 2017: PFAS National Environmental Management Plan

8 April 2016: Joint investigation into fire-fighting foam presence (Rapid Creek and Ludmilla Creeks)

6 May 2016: The facts about PFCs (PFOS and PFOA) in Rapid Creek

20 March 2017: NT EPA to take part in PFAS Summit

Department of Health

15 June 2018: Cancer Incidence in Katherine Health District 1991-2015 and Department of Health District Maps

9 August 2017: Water Conservation Measures to be introduced in Katherine

9 August 2017: Water Treatment Plant to be provided to Katherine Community

27 July 2017: PFAS Reports for Rapid and Ludmilla Creeks

19 July 2017: Katherine Town Water Supply and PFAS Testing Results

3 April 2017: NT Minister for Health acknowledges the release of  Commonwealth PFAS Guidelines

8 November 2016: Statement from Department of Health

15 November 2016: Drinking Water Advice - Katherine Rural Area

Department of Primary Industry and Resources

22 December 2017: Results of fish testing at the Daly River

Power and Water Corporation

17 April 2018: Katherine water conservation measures to remain in place

07 November 2017: Power and Water successfully installs and operates Katherine Water Treatment Plant

18 November 2016: Drinking water quality testing update

25 November 2016: PFAS testing - NT public water drinking supply

Latest results: PFAS testing of drinking water

Australian Government – Department of the Environment and Energy

7 May 2018: Australian Government support PFAS management