PFAS a toxic problem in 'wild west' mining industry

WESTERN Australia has no plan to phase out highly toxic chemicals found on mine sites and oil and gas projects and cannot quantify the level of contamination across the state.
PFAS a toxic problem in 'wild west' mining industry PFAS a toxic problem in 'wild west' mining industry PFAS a toxic problem in 'wild west' mining industry PFAS a toxic problem in 'wild west' mining industry PFAS a toxic problem in 'wild west' mining industry

PFAS foam being sprayed.

Paul Hunt

Senior Journalist: Energy & Commodities

Paul Hunt

Per-and-poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) such as perfluorooctane sulfonate, perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorohexane sulfonate have been used since the 1970s as firefighting foam across mining and oil and gas operations.

PFAS is used in both pre-engineered suppression systems such as haul trucks and mobile plants, as well as fixed suppression systems - installed tanks onsite filled with foam concentrate that is then mixed with water and sprayed on fires from a distance.

The toxic chemicals cause a range of health issues to people exposed, including cancers, liver and kidney failure, immunological problems, and pregnancy complications.

PFAS does not break down and accumulates over time in soils, surface and ground water.

Earlier this year mining giant BHP made headlines after PFAS contamination was found in groundwater at its Whaleback iron ore project in Newman, WA, close to public drinking water.

The WA Department of Water and Environment Regulation (DWER) declared the Mount Whaleback mine a dangerous "contaminated site" and ordered BHP to clean it up.

The incident sparked concern that PFAS could be an underestimated health and environmental disaster waiting to happen in WA.

After three months of inquiries, Australia's Mining Monthly can reveal the WA government has no inventory on the quantity of PFAS in the state.

AMM contacted the WA Department of Water and Environmental Regulation, Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, individual ministers, and peak body the Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA.

None of the organisations, departments, or ministers could provide any data on how abundant PFAS was on WA mine sites or resources operations.

CMEWA told AMM that the issue was a government one, and it was not responsible for gathering this data.

Speaking under anonymity, several sources also told AMM no formal meetings between industry and the government had taken place on how to manage PFAS contamination since the BHP incident. This is contrary to a report by the Australian Financial Review claiming meetings were taking place. 

Furthermore, the government has no plan on how to phase out the harmful substance from resources operations and is instead waiting on the federal government to come up with a solution.

This is despite multiple other states moving quickly to ban PFAS.

Queensland banned PFAS in 2016 with a three-year phase-out period, while South Australia banned it in 2020. New South Wales more recently moved into its own staged process of banning it.

While WA has not moved to ban PFAS itself, the government has "strongly recommended" PFAS be replaced across mines and oil and gas operations with PFAS-free solutions.

DWER told AMM it was helping contribute to a national approach to PFAS and said laws had been introduced in recent years to "ensure contaminated sites are identified, investigated and, where necessary, cleaned up". 

It could not say how many mine sites or oil and gas operations in the state were still using PFAS.

Fire and safety experts told AMM the government needed to join other states in banning PFAS in the short term.

Sicada Fire and Safety chief Robin Sellar said WA was known in the industry as the "wild west" and PFAS was most likely prominent across the "majority of resources operations" in the state.

In Queensland Sicada was a pioneer in removing PFAS from the mining industry. It watered down the toxic chemical and then disposed of it at a local high-temperature incineration facility.

There are only three incineration facilities in Australia with the capacity to destroy PFAS. All are located on the east coast.

Fellow leading fire protection company Wormald agreed with Sicada, that PFAS was "most likely prominent across WA and the Northern Territory".

 Wormald technical director Justin Morris told AMM that PFAS would still be used in firefighting systems in WA. 

"It definitely would be prevalent across mines, but how much is out there we just don't know," Morris said.

He noted contamination would also be highly likely due to testing requirements.

"There would definitely be residual legacy contamination on a lot of sites, because under WA law, all firefighting suppression systems need to be tested annually," Morris said.

"This means PFAS is being sprayed on the ground, so it makes sense there's ground contamination."

One of the key problems facing WA's mining industry is how to dispose of PFAS from fixed fire suppression systems.

Fixed suppression systems are generally large units on an oil platform, LNG plant, or mine site that can spray suppressants for long distances from a fixed location.

However, most of fixed systems in WA contain PFAS.

To extract the PFAS, clean the entire system, and replace equipment where necessary, could mean entire operations would have to be shut down.

Such a shutdown would cost large mining companies millions of dollars in lost time, never mind the cost of replacing PFAS chemicals and then incinerating them.

Morris said the cost of shutdowns and replacing the firefighting foam was a major inhibitor for industry to voluntarily remove PFAS from their sites.

"On a large fixed system at a mine site or oil and gas project, it is a significant cost," he said.

"It's cost of removal, downtime, and then disposal and incineration of PFAS.

"Maintenance and shutdowns can take anywhere from between a few days and weeks or longer, but it's different with every project."

Another problem facing WA is the fact that none of the operating incinerator facilities are located in the state.

While Queensland has two and NSW has one, WA has never built a purpose-built chemical incineration facility.

This would mean PFAS waste from mine sites and oil and gas operations would need to be transported across the country for disposal, and with states quickly banning the use and import of the chemicals, that could be problematic.

"There's the cost of transport, there's the risk of a spill, and then of course barriers in transporting the waste across state lines as well," Morris explained.

"This is a challenge. But building a new waste facility in Western Australia could be an option … it would bring costs down for disposal for sure."

In the meantime, experts agree that without state government policy, miners and oil and gas companies would be unlikely to voluntarily undertake the extensive and expensive process of PFAS removal.

"Looking at other states that have successfully removed PFAS, it has taken state government leadership and policies before anything happened," Morris said.

Both Sicada and Wormald offer PFAS disposal services.