Katherine’s PFAS water treatment plant is finally ready for action – but more will follow, experts warn

In a small, remote outback town, a multimillion-dollar mega-installation shipped from America will soon turn potentially toxic drinking water into some of the cleanest in Australia.

It is the largest built to date and one of the first, but experts and campaigners say many more will be needed as Australia begins to deal with PFAS contamination.

A few years ago, residents of Katherine received the alarming news that the water they were using was contaminated with a group of man-made chemicals known as PFAS, which some experts say are linked to cancers and other serious health problems.

Between 1988 and 2004, during firefighting training at RAAF Base Tindal, PFAS seeped into the Katherine River and spread for miles through the highly connected aquifer below .

The government advised against eating fish caught in the river, the local swimming pool was closed, borehole-dependent properties surrounding the base received bottled water from the Defense and residents lined up for blood tests .

A major study into the health effects of PFAS and a landmark class action lawsuit has been launched and an interim water treatment plant has been put in place, but its size has caused many to fear that drinking water will not be available. ‘exhaust.

Liam Early says the factory will be open in the second half of the year.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

Since then, residents have clung to the promise that Australia’s largest PFAS water treatment plant would be built and after years of delays it has been confirmed that the facility will be completed by August at the latest.

Power and Water Corporation senior project manager Liam Early said it would deliver “very high quality water” and agreed it was likely to be the first of many needs in Australia as the country began to cope to the enormity of PFAS contamination.

“PFAS is a problem in Australia in a multitude of places,” he said.

A smiling woman, her hair pulled back.
Suzie Reichman says more PFAS water treatment plants will be needed if more contaminated sites are discovered.(Provided: Suzie Reichman)

“The more we seek, the more we find”

Associate Professor Suzie Reichman, an expert in pollution science at the University of Melbourne, said stickies were known as “eternal chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment and could be found in hundreds of everyday products like cosmetics, sunscreens and non-frying pans.

“Evidence is mounting that high concentrations can have a number of health impacts, including cancer,” Dr. Reichman said.

“We haven’t definitively proven this in humans, but we also don’t know what concentrations cause [cancers].

“The Australian Government has taken a very cautious approach and we have very low thresholds for PFAS in the environment, including drinking water.

“But because it wasn’t on people’s radars as a contaminant for so long, we now see that it has spread through the environment…the more we search, the more we find.”

With an already high reliance on groundwater expected to increase across Australia as surface resources become less available due to climate change and droughts, Dr Reichman said treatment plants, despite their expense, would offer a good solution.

“We’ve already contaminated the environment with PFAS, and if that’s the only source of water, the solution to keeping it safe for people and inventory…is to clean it,” she said. .

A blonde-haired woman in a dark, floral-patterned suit stands in front of trees.
Erin Brockovich says PFAS is becoming the most pressing groundwater contamination and food supply chain problem ever.(Triple J: Timothy Swanston)

Unprecedented problem, says Brockovich

Erin Brockovich said filtration systems are being installed across the United States, where PFAS have appeared in community water supplies across the country.

“I’m currently working on this issue in Maine where we’re looking at destroying all organic farming,” she said.

“It’s in the cattle, it’s in the chicken eggs, it’s in the aquifer, it’s in [bore] well.

“It’s happening here in California, it’s happened before in Alabama, it’s happening all over Michigan.

A sign for a fire training ground near Tindal Air Force Base warning of hazardous materials.
PFAS chemicals were used in firefighting foams at Defense bases until the early 2000s.(ABC News: Jon Daly)

Ms. Brockovich said a massive local, state and federal effort has begun to address PFAS, including installing wellbore filtration systems.

She said after a slow start, the United States was finally taking notice of the science and research that showed PFAS was widespread and dangerous.

She warned that Australia needed to be prepared and proactive.

“We see and make associations of this chemical with reproductive issues, in particular,” Ms. Brockovich said.

“We see testicular cancers, we see health implications for firefighters and military personnel who are directly exposed to this chemical.

“So let’s start preparing, let’s start looking at where the contamination is, let’s start equipping all the municipalities with filtration systems.

“We’re not kidding when we say this will be the largest emerging chain of groundwater contamination and food supply. [issue] that we have ever seen.

A row of pressure vessels inside a water treatment plant.
The resin microplastics act like magnets inside the huge pressure vessels imported from the USA.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

How will Katherine’s installation work?

The water treatment plant was delayed by a 24-month design process, as well as COVID and supply issues, Early said.

When turned on, it will be able to handle 15 megalitres of water per day, which is more than enough for Katherine, who at the height of the dry season uses a maximum of 12 megalitres.

After the water is sucked from the groundwater through a borehole, it is processed through the pressure vessels.

Reservoirs of a water treatment plant in the outback.
The new facility will be able to clean 15 megalitres of water per day.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

Resin-based microplastics called “media” capture PFAS and remove it from water.

“So what we have is a flushing process,” Early said.

“Concentration [of toxic contaminants] is rinsed and disposed of in an evaporation basin.”

When enough solids had accumulated in the evaporation pond, Early said, they would be dug up and “disposed of at an appropriate waste disposal site”.

An old man with glasses and a beard sits in his office.
GP Peter Spafford welcomes the plant, but questions the actual sustainability of the water supply.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

As Defense continues to filter contaminated water and pump it into aquifers in Katherine, Oakey and Williamtown, ongoing droughts and ongoing health issues are far from over for residents.

Peter Spafford, Katherine’s only GP at the height of the PFAS scare, said long-term health issues were still a concern for residents despite a major study finding no conclusive evidence of a risk increased incidence of cancer or disease in all three cities.

Amid over-pumping, drought and the constant influence of climate change, he said the sewage treatment plant was a “band-aid measure”.

“It’s tapping into underground water supplies, which certainly with decreasing rainfall and increased usage due to fracking, [are] not necessarily sustainable,” Dr. Spafford said.

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