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PFAS Investigation &
Management Program

RAAF Base Tindal

Frequently Asked Questions

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) regarding the PFAS Investigation and Management Program are available below. As the investigations progress, FAQs will be added and updated.

TINDAL ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATION

How did the PFAS get into Katherine's water?

Legacy firefighting foams, containing PFAS, were used by Defence at RAAF Base Tindal in firefighting drills and emergency/disaster event training. PFAS most likely entered the ground from the use of these firefighting foams and travelled through ground and surface water.

From 2004, Defence commenced phasing out its use of legacy firefighting foams containing specific types of PFAS, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), as active ingredients.

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Why isn’t all the Katherine community receiving bottled water?

The town water supply remains safe to drink as advised by the NT Department of Health and the NT Power and Water Corporation. The provision of the interim water treatment plant is a precautionary measure.

Defence is providing water to properties, located near RAAF Base Tindal that:

  • Do not have a town water connection;
  • Are reliant on bore water for drinking; and/or
  • Sourcing drinking water from a rainwater tank that currently or previously contains contaminated bore water.

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Are residents living at RAAF Base Tindal receiving bottled water?

No, RAAF Base Tindal residents are not receiving bottled water. RAAF Base Tindal relies on town water for domestic use, this includes drinking water and water used for irrigation.

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The interim PFAS water treatment plant treats 1 megalitre of water per day and the Katherine community uses up to 15 megalitres of water per day. How can this keep Katherine's water safe to drink?

The Katherine town water supply is primarily sourced from the Katherine River. When the Katherine River level is low or the river water quality is poor, the town water supply is supplemented with up to 10% bore water.

During the course of the investigation, PFAS was detected in Katherine’s bore water. Since bore water comprises only a small proportion of Katherine’s town water supply, NT and federal health authorities have confirmed that the town water is safe to drink.

The interim PFAS water treatment plant will filter PFAS from the bore water before it is blended with water from the Katherine River at the NT Power and Water Corporation’s water treatment plant to generate the town water supply.

The interim PFAS plant can treat approximately 1 million litres of bore water, or a megalitre (ML) per day. This means that the plant can process the majority of the bore water currently required to service the Katherine community. However, this blend will be carefully monitored to ensure that PFAS levels in the Katherine water supply remain below the health based guidance values.

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Why are some properties using the water from the same aquifer (Tindal aquifer) receiving different PFAS results? Wouldn't all water from the same aquifer have the same results?

An aquifer is not a stagnant, underground lake. It has currents, flows and physical geology that impact water movement. This is why one property may be affected and a neighbouring property may not.

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Is it safe to swim in Katherine Hot Springs?

Recent testing has confirmed that it is safe to swim in the Katherine Hot Springs. PFAS test results have indicated that detectable PFAS is well below the Health Based Guidance Value for recreational water use.

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Should I be cautious of the levels of PFAS when conducting recreational activities in and around the Katherine River?

Recent testing has confirmed PFAS does not pose a risk to swimming in the Katherine River. PFAS Test results have indicated that detectable PFAS is well below the Health Based Guidance Value for recreational water use.

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Is it safe to consume food taken from the Tindal Creek, Katherine River and Daly River?

Defence is not a Health authority and relies on Commonwealth and NT Health authorities for guidance on health matters. NT Department of Health has advised that consumption of barramundi, catfish and mullet species caught in the Daly River are unlikely to present a public health and safety concern, further information can be found at the NT Department of Primary Industries website.

NT Department of Health as a precautionary measure is recommending that people avoid eating fish, shellfish and cherabin from the Katherine River and Tindal Creek. This action is purely a precaution as we wait for further wet season sampling results and the release of the final Human Health Risk Assessment by Defence in mid 2018 (further information is available from the NT Environmental Protection Agency.)

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What is Defence doing in relation to management options?

The best management activities for each site will be determined by site-specific factors, such as the history of legacy firefighting foam use as well as the topography and the hydrogeology of the region.

The investigation findings will help identify sources of contamination and explore options to find solutions and determine the most appropriate management strategies.

As a precaution, Defence has introduced a range of interim water management measures including:

  • The provision of an interim PFAS water treatment plant,
  • The provision of alternative water to eligible residents,
  • The provision of rainwater tanks to eligible residents, and
  • The implementation of water conservation measures at RAAF Tindal.

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THE PFAS CHEMICALS

What is PFAS and what is it used for?

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made compounds that have been used for various applications around the world since the 1950’s, including Australia.

PFAS are stable chemical compounds that do not break down in the environment. They remain in the environment, on properties and in trace amounts in humans for a long time.

PFAS have typically been used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, water and grease across Australia and around the world. The image below shows some products that commonly contain PFAS.

Common household products and specialty applications where PFAS may be present include: the manufacture of non-stick cookware; fabric, furniture and carpet stain protection applications; food packaging; and in some industrial processes.

Visit the "What is PFAS?" page for more information.

HMAS Stirling

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What is Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) and why has it been used?

Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) has been used in Australia and worldwide for many years to assist with fire training drills and emergency/disaster event training by government and private sector organisations. This includes Defence military base locations, civilian aerodromes and industrial facilities around Australia.

AFFF is the most effective firefighting medium for liquid fuel fires to ensure human safety in emergency situations. AFFF acts quickly to smother fuel, preventing contact with oxygen by adding a thin film of foam over the fire.

The detection of PFAS from the previous use of AFFF products is a national and international matter that is not unique to Defence.

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What firefighting foam does Defence now use?

From 2004, Defence commenced phasing out its use of legacy firefighting foams containing perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) as active ingredients. Defence now uses a more environmentally safe firefighting product called Ansulite. Ansulite does not contain PFOS and PFOA as active ingredients, only in trace amounts.

Ansulite is used by Defence only in emergency situations where human life is at risk, or in controlled environments to test equipment.

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How is Defence minimising the risk of contamination from the use of firefighting foams?

Any Ansulite used by Defence is captured and treated and/or disposed of at licensed waste disposal facilities, in accordance with best-practice regulations, and standards.

Defence-owned facilities have been upgraded, where firefighting foams are used, to create closed systems. Closed systems are designed to capture spent firefighting foam and minimise the risk of firefighting foam being released into the environment.

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HEALTH

Defence cannot provide health advice as this is the role of respective State and/or local health authorities and practitioners. Defence’s position on health issues relating to PFAS aligns with the enHealth guidance statements as outlined by the Australian Government Department of Health.

Will PFAS affect my health?

According to the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) Guidance Statements on per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, released in June 2016, there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to these PFAS causes adverse human health effects.

However, because PFAS compounds persist in humans and the environment, enHealth recommends that human exposure is minimised as a precaution.

Most people living in the developed world will have levels of PFAS in their body, as these compounds have been used in common household and industrial applications. The most common pathway is believed to be ingestion from PFAS contaminated food and drink.

Fact sheets and further information on the effects of PFAS on your health are available on the Department of Health Website.

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Will the environmental investigation assess the ways in which humans and the environment may be exposed to PFAS?

If required, Defence will cooperate with State and Territory Governments to undertake human health and ecological risk assessments. These human health and ecological risk assessments test PFAS levels in animals and plants that are part of the human food chain, as well as some that are not.

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What is the Voluntary Blood Testing Program?

The Department of Health is administering a voluntary blood testing program for those who have lived or worked in the Williamtown, NSW and Oakey, Queensland Investigation Areas. Where individual consent is given, the PFAS voluntary blood test results may be used as part of the epidemiological study. On 3 December 2017 the Australian Government announced that it will expand the voluntary blood testing program and epidemiological study to Katherine NT in early 2018.

More information on the Blood Testing Program can be found here.

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THE PFAS ENVIRONMENTAL PROGRAM

What environmental investigations are being undertaken?

Several organisations are undertaking environmental investigations into PFAS within their area of responsibility. In addition to Defence these include water service providers, State Environmental Protection Authorities and Airservices.

To see a list of all Defence PFAS Investigation and Management sites click here.

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What do the environmental investigations involve?

The detailed environmental investigations involve:

  • desktop studies
  • targeted sampling and testing of local groundwater bores and monitoring wells on and off the base
  • monitoring, sampling and testing surface water and sediment, this may include water drainage lines, creeks, rivers and domestic pools
  • community water and land use surveys to inform the assessment of potential exposure risks to people
  • provision of alternative water supplies to eligible households, on request
  • if required, Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessments to assess the risks of PFAS exposure to people and the environment, these may involve targeted testing of plants and animals, not all plant and animal species need to be tested
  • ongoing liaison with relevant Federal, State and local government authorities in relation to possible health and environmental effects of these compounds
  • regular community updates through community information sessions and information on the project website.
Visit the investigation process page for more information.

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What screening criteria are used in Defence environmental investigations?

The Commonwealth Department of Health released the final Health Based Guidance Values (HBGV) for PFAS on 3 April 2017. These HBGVs were developed by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), at the request of the Department of Health.

The HBGVs for PFAS are a precautionary measure to assist people, investigating agencies and affected communities in minimising their exposure to PFAS. Specifically, these final values will be utilised by Defence to assess risk and take further action as necessary.

For more information visit the Department of Health HBGV web page. The Department of Environment and Energy has published a National Environmental Management Plan that includes screening levels for PFAS in soil. These screening levels are derived using standard calculation methods described in the National Environment Protection (Assessment of Site Contamination) Measure.

The National Environmental Management Plan is available on the EPA Victoria website.

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Can I request samples of PFAS impacted soil and water to assist with research or trials?

Requests from organisations and individuals for samples of contaminated soil and water should be sent to PFAS.Coordination@Defence.gov.au for review and consideration.

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What does ‘limit of reporting’ mean?

When a laboratory tests a sample for PFAS the result may be below the limit of reporting (<LOR). This either means that there is no PFAS in the sample or the amount of PFAS is too small for the laboratory to measure with any degree of certainty.

The limit of reporting is well below all health based guidance values and screening criteria. There is no need to change the way you use water, soil, plants or animals that have been tested and returned a result below the limit of reporting.

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WATER

What can I do if PFOS, PFHxS or PFOA are detected in my drinking water e.g. bore or tank water?

The Environmental Health Standing Committee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (enHealth) advises that there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects.

However, because PFAS chemicals persist in humans and the environment, enHealth recommends that human exposure to PFAS chemicals should be minimised as a precaution. Defence adopts a precautionary approach and will assess eligible household’s drinking water requirements on a case-by-case basis.

If PFOS, PFHxS or PFOA are detected in your bore or tank water and you have no alternative drinking water source, the Project team will discuss possible management strategies and alternative water supplies with you.

As a precaution - and irrespective of any actual measured concentrations in bore and/or tank water - Defence will consider supplying eligible residents, within the investigation area with an alternative water supply for drinking and domestic use.

Further information about managing tank water can be found on the Guidance on use of rain water tanks.

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What alternative water support is available?

Households within the defined Investigation Areas, that do not have a town water connection and drink bore water (directly or via rainwater tanks), are welcome to contact the Project Teams to discuss possible management strategies. These may include:

  • Supplying bottled water;
  • Refilling rainwater tanks with potable water; and
  • Sampling and testing domestic swimming pools that are filled and maintained with bore water.
  • Water assistance enquiries should be directed to the Project Team by phone or email. You will be asked to complete a short survey to gather information about your water use to assess your eligibility for alternative water.
If you are eligible for water assistance, Defence will arrange delivery of alternative water supplies free of charge, on a regular basis.

The duration of water assistance will depend on:

  • The outcomes of Defence’s environmental investigation; and
  • each household situation related to water use and available options assessed on a case-by-case basis.
The provision of alternative water supplies by Defence will be reviewed on completion of the environmental investigation, or sooner, if information obtained during the environmental investigation suggests such a review is warranted.

The Project team will contact households directly about any proposed changes to water assistance arrangements.

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Can you recommend a domestic water filter?

While Defence is aware that certain domestic filters claim to reduce PFAS levels in water, Defence cannot advise on the effectiveness of these filters. The purchase and maintenance of domestic filters is at the discretion of residents.

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PROPERTY SAMPLING

Will my property (bore, pool, dam, creek, water tank) be tested?

If your property is selected for testing as part of the investigation, you will receive a letter and consent form seeking permission to sample your property. You will be requested to contact the Project team to arrange a suitable date and time.

Not every property in the investigation area needs to be tested to estimate the extent of PFAS in the investigation area. If you would like to have your property tested you can ask the Project team. You will be asked to complete a Water Use Survey to assess your eligibility. Priority is generally given to properties within the investigation area and where residents use bore water for drinking.

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How are residential bores and tanks sampled?

Residential bores, extraction bores and tanks are sampled to measure water quality (with respect to PFAS) at the point it is used. The first flush sampling method is used to understand the quality of water that comes out of the bore or tank when the tap or pump is turned on.

If targeted PFAS compounds have accumulated in pipe work and are released into water during the first flush, the sample will include them.

The following steps are undertaken when using the first flush sampling method. These steps follow strict procedures, consistent with relevant Australian standards to ensure data integrity:

  • laboratory-supplied sample containers are prepared and labeled;
  • a fresh pair of nitrile gloves is used by the field staff member taking the sample;
  • a container is placed beneath a tap outlet (connected to a bore or tank) and the tap is slowly opened to collect the first draw;
  • the container is filled to the top and capped tightly;
  • the sample is immediately placed in a cooler;
  • field water quality parameters are recorded from tap water collected in a secondary container e.g. pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, electrical conductivity and reduction/oxidation potential; and
  • general observations of water quality are recorded, including colour, turbidity and odour.

All samples are transported under industry standard chain of custody procedures to a National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) accredited laboratory.

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MANAGEMENT

What is Defence doing in relation to management options?

The best management activities for investigation sites are determined by site-specific factors such as the site’s hydrogeology, the nature and extent of PFAS detections and access to the site.

The detailed site investigation assists in determining the most appropriate management strategies for a particular site.

Visit the Management Activities page for further information on what management activities Defence is currently undertaking.

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INFORMATION AND ASSISTANCE

How can I find out more and be kept informed about the environmental investigation?

Defence will regularly update the investigation site community during the investigation. Updates will be delivered through community information sessions, advice from the Project team, factsheets and the website, including these FAQs.

For more information please contact the Defence environmental investigation Project team.

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I am considering requesting compensation. How do I do this?

Individual claims for compensation will be considered on a case by case basis. How to make a claim is outlined on the PFAS financial claims page.

Note that Defence cannot advise landholders, property owners and residents about legal representation or conditions offered by legal representatives.

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