Legacy and emerging contaminants

Things that smell bad, look ugly and can kill you

two used blue drums with hazard labels on the shore across the lake from an industrial siteThis is the EPA’s fourth key focus area – in the words of one of our senior staff.

In January 2022, our Executive Director of Regulatory Operations Regional, Carmen Dwyer, was visiting western NSW with our new Minister for Environment and Heritage, along with colleagues from other departments who manage national parks and environmental water.

Some of our interagency colleagues showed the Minister the beauty of the Macquarie Marshes and rare birds, and got him to release a bilby. But the EPA took him to scary, more hazardous sites.

As Carmen said wryly to the Minister, ‘They’ve got all the fabulous things that are cute and cuddly and green. What I’ve got to show you are things that smell bad, look ugly and can kill you.’

This was a timely reminder of all the crucial work we do on contaminants. They may not be cute or cuddly. And the work may not be glamorous. But its importance is undisputed. Because without it, we’d have far less of the things that are cute, cuddly and green.

Emerging chemicals: what’s next?

Industry and agriculture use a huge array of chemicals, and the list is growing. We need to be alert for any sign these substances might harm people and the environment.

Sometimes chemicals have been in use for a while before their risks become evident. The chemical family called PFAS is an example (see page 76). Investigating PFAS contamination in NSW has been a big job.

‘In the wake of PFAS, how can we anticipate what the next emerging chemical issue might be?’ asks Dr Anna Ramarosandratana, Principal Technical Adviser in Environmental Solutions CLR. ‘With tens if not hundreds of thousands of chemicals in use, how can we proactively anticipate the chemicals and situations that have the potential to cause environmental harm, and then prioritise them so the EPA can target its efforts in the right place?’

‘How can we anticipate what the next emerging chemical issue might be?’

Developing a framework and tools

We’re working to create a framework for emerging chemical issues: a robust, evidence-based way of identifying emerging chemicals of concern and chemical issues, and of assessing their relevance to, and importance for, NSW.

We began by developing a ‘bubble diagram’ – a tool that evaluates chemical toxicity, exposure and emerging concern to prioritise chemicals against one another.

For this work we look to see which issues regulators around the world are facing, and what research scientists are learning about chemicals and the risks they might pose.

Microplastics under the microscope

‘Microplastics are on our radar as an emerging issue,’ says Dr Julie Cattle, Unit Head in Environmental Solutions CLR. ‘They transport and release chemicals, and they also have adverse physical and biological effects. There’s emerging evidence that they’re present in recovered wastes that are beneficially applied to land and we really need to understand the magnitude of this issue.

Prioritisation of a selection of chemicals of emerging concern in wastewater

Site auditor scheme

The NSW site auditor scheme provides a pool of accredited site auditors who can independently review work done by contaminated land consultants.

Auditors are part of a process that protects people’s health and the environment. When contaminated land is going to be developed for a new use, councils and other planning authorities must make sure it is assessed and suitably remediated. The independent review by an auditor provides them and the community with confidence that this has been done properly.

We administer the site auditor scheme and grant site auditors their accreditation. Anyone who wants to become a site auditor must go through our rigorous assessment process. Applicants have to be highly knowledgeable and experienced in contaminated land management and have a great deal of technical expertise. They must submit a detailed application and pass both an exam and an interview.

We invite applications from would-be auditors about once every three years. As at 30 June 2022 there were 44 accredited site auditors in NSW and another intake is under way.

Asbestos: tackling an ongoing problem

workers in ppe suits removing corrugated asbestos sheets from a roofThis year 16 teams across six EPA divisions worked on 33 projects related to asbestos. But what’s the problem with asbestos and why do we pay itsuch attention?

What is the problem?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral with many desirable properties that was widely used in construction last century. Asbestos is low risk as long as it is in good condition and not disturbed. However, if asbestos fibres become airborne, they can get into your lungs and cause cancer and other diseases. In Australia, the use of asbestos in residential buildings was phased out by 1990, and its importation and use was banned completely in 2003. Yet Australians are still dying from asbestos-related disease: more than 4,000 each year, it’s estimated – triple the annual national road toll. Asbestos-related disease is set to burden us for over a century unless we take more action.

The use of asbestos in residential buildings was phased out by 1990

Setting our directions

To tackle the unhappy legacy of asbestos, in 2019 the EPA published the NSW Asbestos Waste Strategy 2019–21. All strategy actions were delivered by 2021. Some of them will also carry on through the NSW Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041: Stage 1 2021–2027 and Asbestos in NSW: Setting the Direction 2021–22. The latter document is an EPA-led, whole-of-government statement, released in November 2021 on behalf of the NSW Asbestos Coordination Committee.

What we’re doing

The Direction statement highlights five immediate priorities for action in 2021 and 2022.The EPA has played a lead role in the delivery of all five. In particular, to address Priority 4: Improving asbestos awareness, we developed and launched a statewide public awareness campaign, informed by behaviour-change science. Social research we commissioned showed that many do-it-yourself (DIY) renovators and tradespeople don’t know they are exposing themselvesand their families to asbestos. The ‘Be Asbestos Ready’ campaign is helping remedy this.

Making progress in the fight against PFAS

brown chicken being held in front of a coopFirst of all, what’s PFAS?

PFAS stands for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. It’s a group of over 3,000 heat-, water- and stain-resistant chemicals used in lots of things, most notably in firefighting foams.

The EPA leads the NSW Government’s response to PFAS across the State. Throughout 2021–22 we continued to assess sites where PFAS might have been used in the past, to better understand the extent of PFAS use and manage contamination. These sites included ones managed by NSW Fire and Rescue, NSW Rural Fire Service, Airservices Australia and the Department of Defence.

decorativeThroughout 2021–22 we continued to assess sites where PFAS might have been used in the past

Responding to PFAS

PFAS chemicals are very stable. They bioaccumulate, do not easily break down, and can persist for a long time in the environment. However, finding PFAS in the environment does not mean there is a human or ecological health risk. The NSW Government adopts a precautionary approach to help reduce people’s exposure to PFAS. Where there is a high concentration of PFAS, the response typically includes limiting groundwater use and the consumption of home-grown animals and their produce (such as chickens and their eggs).

For example, this was the approach adopted at a residential property in Sydney where the backyard had been contaminated by PFAS from a nearby fire station. Remediation was carried out swiftly (and at the polluter’s expense).

It included excavating the backyard and creating new, raised garden beds so the owners could continue growing vegetables. The resident hen, Patricia, received a new chicken coop on clean soil so she could go on laying healthy eggs.

Regulating firefighting foam

The EPA has policies aimed at reducing the potential impact of PFAS. The Protection of the Environment Operations (General) Regulation 2021 includes provisions designed to reduce the discharge and sale of certain types of firefighting foam containing PFAS. We’re providing guidance to help users comply with these restrictions. n

Making sure fines are fine

a yellow skip bin clearly marked no asbestosWhat are recovered fines in skip bins all about?

Well, they have nothing to do with infringement notices. They’re actually the fine and dusty sand or soil detritus that ends up in the bottom of skip bins, usually from construction and demolition activities.

The reason this can be an environmental issue is because these ‘crumbs’ can contain dangerous materials such as asbestos.

When the fines are processed into soil supplements, so are the contaminants – and they end up with gardeners and landscapers.

A 2019 review raised concerns for the EPA about the quality of recovered fines at processing facilities and about how contaminant testing wasoccurring.

These ‘crumbs’ can contain dangerous materials such as asbestos

To ensure compliance, the EPA proposed the tightening of regulations around asbestos and the blending, screening and retesting of waste to lift the standards and improve quality control, quality assurance and the tracking of waste.

We also spoke with the many stakeholders who may have been affected by these changes including laboratories, recyclers, landscapers, the construction industry and skip bin owners.

Following this, the EPA decided not to move ahead with the proposed changes to the rules governing how recovered fines are managed and recycled. Instead, we’ll focus on waste industry education, monitoring and compliance to improve environmental outcomes.