After five horrendous years, Port Stephens residents living inside the per-and poly- fluoroalkylsubstances (PFAS) contamination zone have something to look forward to following the breakthrough settlement announced by the federal government on February 26.
And while the details of the in-principle agreement are being thrashed out between government representatives and lawyers for the Williamtown class action, residents are being gifted hope for a longer-term solution to their contaminated properties.
Tucked away in a tiny lab inside Newcastle University's geotechnical, science and engineering building, a senior researcher and his team are working feverishly to create a world-first solution to eradicate the toxic PFAS chemical, and give residents the gratifying news they have been craving.
The groundbreaking research involves the use of hemp plants, seeds and powder to treat water and soil contaminated with the man-made PFAS chemicals.
The brainchild of Dr Brett Turner, a senior research associate from the university's centre for geotechnical science and engineering, the study - still in its preliminary stages - has shown promising results.
"I am quietly confident of a major breakthrough," Dr Turner told the Examiner. "In experiments using hemp powder we managed to remove 99.8 per cent of PFAS from contaminated water we collected in a creek close to the Williamtown RAAF base.
"We are preparing to do some preliminary larger scale trials in South Australia in the coming months.
"If we can replicate those results in a natural environment, we could, with government approval and industry support begin full testing. In fact, our technology would work extremely well at the final stage of the treatment plants currently used at Williamtown."
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Dr Turner estimated that results could be known in six to nine months.
"The issue of how to dispose of the PFAS chemical once it has been drawn from the water or soil would be a next major step."
The university team was awarded $4.7 million as part of the federal government's May budget announcement due largely to the lobbying and support of [then senator] Brian Burston and Paterson MP Meryl Swanson.
"The first six months was taken up with acquiring lab instruments, gaining DPI approval to grow hemp for scientific purposes and commissioning of the work," Dr Turner said.
"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 and water in a natural way."
He said the team's early findings were being further explored, and applied to the more complex challenge of contaminated soil.
"We have set up two test sites - one with contaminated soil and with uncontaminated soil. Samples will be analysed at various stages to check on the PFAS intake and where the chemical settles."
Dr Turner said previous trials had identified the hemp plant as having qualities that could draw out heavy metals from soils.
"It would therefore not be unreasonable to suspect that hemp plants grown in contaminated soil would do a good clean up job with PFAS. If the chemical is drawn to the leaf, this part of the plant can be harvested and the stalk regrown until all the PFAS has been removed."
If successful, Dr Turner believes the technology could be used worldwide to address and remediate contaminated soils.