Williamtown residents optimistically cautious about Newcastle University research into PFAS contamination

SEARCH: Dr Brett Turner (left) and Professor Scott Sloan, who passed away unexpectedly just weeks after this photo was taken, undergoing research into the treatment of PFAS contamination. Picture: Supplied
SEARCH: Dr Brett Turner (left) and Professor Scott Sloan, who passed away unexpectedly just weeks after this photo was taken, undergoing research into the treatment of PFAS contamination. Picture: Supplied

Williamtown residents say they are cautiously optimistic about the news that University of Newcastle researchers could be on track to finding a solution to per-and poly- fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination after years of living in fear.

As part of last month's federal budget announcement, researchers were awarded $4.7 million - part of an overall package of $83 million in PFAS remediation funding - to continue investigating the use of hemp seed proteins, and the hemp plant itself, to treat water and soil contaminated with PFAS.

The money was secured after months of lobbying from Hunter-based Senator Brian Burston, who will be standing as a United Australia Party (UAP) Senate candidate in the May 18 federal election.

Mr Burston, who controversially left the One Nation Party which he had been a member of for more than 20 years to join the Clive Palmer-led UAP, said that the university project could have far-reaching benefits for the Williamtown community and countless other sites across the world.

"This grant, supported by an additional $1.7 million from Newcastle University, will be used to continue investigating the use of hemp seed and plant proteins to treat water and soil contaminated with PFAS," Mr Burston said.

"The initial work was carried out by Dr Brett Turner and Professor Scott Sloan, from the university's Priority Research Centre for Geotechnical Science and Engineering. Unfortunately, Professor Sloan died unexpectedly last week and the research will carry on in his memory."

United Australia Party Senator Brian Burston during Question Time in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra on April 3, 2019. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

United Australia Party Senator Brian Burston during Question Time in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra on April 3, 2019. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Williamtown spokesperson Linden Drysdale, who lives in the heart of the 'red zone' on Cabbage Tree Road, said that the research would provide many of the long-suffering residents with some positive news after years of government knock-backs and frustration.

"I think it's wonderful news that they are using a natural herb and not chemical," Ms Drysdale said.

"My concern is how are they going to filter the plant seed or resin into the vast amounts of water and soil and remediate the entire area from Williamtown to Salt Ash."

The man-made chemicals known as PFASs have been widely used in food wrappers, textile stains, non-stick cooking utensils, carpet and furniture protectants, insecticides, electronics, and in fire-fighting foams. Considered almost non-degradable in nature, many conventional treatments for PFAS remediation are not effective and the costs of remediation technologies exorbitant.

Dr Turner said the team's early findings would be applied to the more complex challenge of contaminated soil.

"We found that hemp has a remarkable affinity for PFAS chemicals in groundwater, so we expect that this can be applied to remediate contaminated soil.The next stage of the research would pioneer a more cost-effective way of removing chemical compounds from soil, groundwater and surface waters in a natural way. It will also allow us to increase our team."

Mr Burston praised the role played by Finance Minister Mathais Cormann in securing the government funding announced in April's Budget.

He said that if elected as senator the UAP would push to have the government of the day adopt all recommendations handed down by the Senate Inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around defence bases.

"That includes establishing a funding pool for research into treatment of PFAS contaminated sites ($10 million over 4 years) and a funding pool for remediation of sites where the contamination is a result of a Federal Government department ($50 million per annum).

"Set up a voluntary buyback/compensation scheme (fund) for eligible properties that have been contaminated by a federal government department, with the initial fund to start at $250 million, and a proper health review of the effects of PFAS on human health to include studies from around the world."

He said the party would look at a PFAS health compensation scheme, similar to the asbestos compensation scheme, for those affected by health impacts of PFAS.

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