“The Turnbull government has defended its handling of the country’s firefighting foam contamination scandal, after coming under attack from within its own party for its failure to compensate victims trapped on toxic and unsaleable properties.

It comes amid revelations that roughly 1150 square kilometres of land on and surrounding the country’s military bases is being investigated for toxic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals [PFAS], an area equivalent to more than 20 Sydney Harbours.

A leading expert in toxic contamination has also warned the scope of the problem is much larger than Defence sites, flagging a sweeping range of industrial sites that are likely to be polluted with the toxins – while nearby residents are oblivious to the risk…

The Turnbull government argued it had made ‘significant progress’ in managing the effects of PFAS contamination.

This included more than $120 million spent on supporting contaminated communities with counselling, blood testing and alternative drinking water, in addition to $30 million to research health effects and develop clean-up technologies.

The NSW submission had rebuked the Turnbull government for its failure to compensate people whose property values had plummeted or who were unable to sell due to banks refusing to lend in contaminated postcodes.

NSW also called for authorities to focus on urging the public to minimise their exposure to the toxins, rather than the Commonwealth’s current emphasis that there was no ‘consistent’ evidence of health effects.

This position appears to be at odds with the US Environmental Protection Agency, which has concluded that the ‘weight of evidence’ shows the chemicals are a human health hazard.

The federal government pointed out it had put $12.5 million towards a National Research Program into the effects of prolonged exposure to PFAS and was basing its advice on the findings of an expert panel.

It also argued the devaluation of properties was largely the result of ‘perception or stigma, as opposed to health or environmental impacts’.

‘Defence has engaged with financial institutions and property valuers, focusing on education and raising awareness about PFAS and the status of Defence’s environmental investigations,’ it said.

The federal government revealed it had fielded 33 active claims for compensation due to PFAS contamination at the end of May, but said it would not be appropriate to comment further while legal action was under way.

In another submission to the inquiry, an academic expert with 28 years’ experience in the field of contamination stressed the scope of the problem was much larger than Defence sites.

Professor Robert Niven, from the University of NSW Canberra, pointed out that commercial airports, firefighting facilities, fuel refineries, ports, fuel storage depots, chemical manufacturing plants, oil or gas extraction facilities, landfills and wastewater treatment plants were likely to be affected.

Any location where a large fuel or chemical fire had occurred in the past half century should also be investigated, he said.”

Read the full article by Carrie Fellner