Airservices Australia sued over use of foam that contained substances suspected of being linked to cancer
Brisbane airport said it warned the nation’s air services agency to clean up firefighting foam contamination six years ago it, but alleges it failed to act.
The airport’s owners are suing Airservices Australia, a government-owned corporation, over contamination caused by the decades-long use of toxic foam by aviation firefighters.
The foam contained substances known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (Pfas), which United States studies have found to share a probable link with cancer.
The wide-scale use of Pfas throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s has led to contamination crises at fire stations, defence bases, and airports across Australia, most notably at Williamtown in New South Wales, Oakey in Queensland, and Katherine in the Northern Territory.
Soil and groundwater at three locations at Brisbane Airport were found to be contaminated with Pfas, and a 2012 assessment found there were potential health risks to maintenance and construction workers.
In October, the Brisbane Airport Corporation launched civil action against Airservices in Queensland’s supreme court.
Court documents obtained by Guardian Australia suggest the contamination has spread outside the airport’s boundaries.
They also show the airport wrote to Airservices Australia in October 2012, urging it to develop plans clean up, or remediate, the Pfas contamination.
The airport alleges its request was not heeded.
Airservices developed environmental management plans to monitor groundwater and surface water, and to prevent the use of contaminated water.
But Brisbane airport alleges the management plans did not require any action by Airservices Agency (ASA) to remove or “otherwise deal with” the Pfas contamination itself.
“Notwithstanding [Brisbane Airport Corporation’s] advice regarding its requirement for the [environmental management plans], ASA has failed or refused to … implement any remedial measures to deal with the Pfas contamination of any of the ASA sites,” the documents allege.
The airport claims the failure was a breach of the conditions of the lease agreement between the pair.
The contamination, it alleged, spread due to the movement of groundwater through drainage channels.
The documents do not give an estimate for the clean-up cost. But the airport alleged it had been forced to delay developments on the site, and had borne the costs of investigating the “nature and extent” of the problem.
Contamination is being investigated at a number of other airport sites across the country. Aviation firefighters used a more toxic foam, known as 3M Lightwater, from 1988 until the early 2000s. Airservices Australia, upon learning of the dangers of Pfas, switched to another foam, named Ansulite, incorrectly believing it was Pfas-free.
It continued to use Ansulite until about 2010, when it switched to a Pfas-free product.
Airservices said it was unable to comment on the court case launched by the Brisbane Airport Corporation.
But it issued a statement saying it has been “proactively managing its response to Pfas contamination since 2003”.
“We continue to work with relevant Commonwealth, state and territory regulators and other government agencies to conduct site investigations, share information and contribute to the development of regulatory guidance to identify how best to manage our response to Pfas contamination,” the statement said.
“We continue to invest in research and development activities focused on better understanding Pfas and its potential impacts and identifying practicable solutions to Pfas containment and remediation.”
Airservices has taken steps to ensure any risk to human health is ameliorated for workers.
“It was determined that simple good hygiene practices are sufficient protection against exposure when working on the sites,” the agency said in an information sheet.
Late last year, the United Firefighters Union demanded airport firefighters be given blood tests. The Queensland government has already offered free tests to state firefighters.