PFAS firefighting foams have been banned in NSW from today in firefighting training, with further restrictions on their use in fire extinguishers to take effect in 18 months' time.
The March 1 ban was announced by NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean, who said yesterday that the Berejiklian government's PFAS regulations would significantly reduce environmental impacts while allowing emergency agencies to use the products in defined "catastrophic" or "special" situations.
"Firefighting foam is the key cause of PFAS contamination in the NSW environment with concentrations detected at airports, defence sites, emergency service facilities, training facilities, major hazard facilities, and their surrounding environments," Mr Kean said.
"This ban on PFAS firefighting foam will significantly reduce the impact on our environment but still enable our emergency agencies to fight catastrophic fires that can have devastating impacts on life and property."
Williamtown campaigner Lindsay Clout welcomed the ban, calling it a "commendable step in the right direction", but questioned why it had taken so long to announce.
Mr Clout heads the Williamtown-based Coalition Against PFAS and played a major role in the class action that the federal government settled in March last year with the payment of $86 million for compensation and legal costs to some 500 Williamtown area claimants.
"The ban again confirms what we already knew, that these chemicals are dangerous," Mr Clout said yesterday.
"Also, this NSW government action also heightens our concerns about the federal government continuing to ignore us, and leave us exposed.
"Linda Reynolds as Defence Minister could have met with us when she visited the RAAF base three weeks ago for a Joint Strike Fighter promotion.
"That she chose not to, typifies the view from Defence headquarters in Canberra."
Mr Clout said the NSW government actions appeared well-intentioned, but there were concerns that at least part of the delay in bringing this ban and other restrictions into place was because governments were giving the users of PFAS foams - many of them being government agencies - time to run down their stocks.
"I hope that is not true, but from our perspective, COVID, and any other excuse as to why this has taken so long, are just that - excuses - and this should have happened years ago.
"Despite this, they are still clinging to the line that there is no definite evidence of human health impacts from PFAS, which we say is at odds with their environmental concerns."
Mr Kean's office said the NSW bans and limitations were part of a national process, with Commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers endorsing a PFAS National Environmental Management Plan in October 2019.
Statements issued as part of the national process included a National PFAS Position Statement published in May 2020, which said that: "All (Australian governments) agree that more effort should be focused on preventing further PFAS releases into the environment."
Mr Kean said the bans will be enforced under new, 2021, PFAS firefighting foam Regulations under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act of 1997.
He said the regulation banned "any PFAS firefighting foam for training and demonstration purposes" from today, March 1, 2021.
He said it "restrict(ed) the use of long-chain PFAS firefighting foam from September 2022; and, restrict(ed) the use and sale of PFAS firefighting foam in portable fire extinguishers from September 2022".
"We have already seen some businesses and government agencies voluntarily phase out PFAS foam in their products and practices," Mr Kean said.
"These changes will make the phase out mandatory across NSW, and are key steps to bringing NSW into line with Australia's National PFAS Position Statement."
Mr Kean's office said phased restrictions were already in force in South Australia and Queensland.
Mr Kean said there had been extensive consultation with emergency agencies and industry stakeholders, and the staged introduction over 18 months gave adequate time for systems and practices to be changed.
He said exemptions were available if a business had valid cause to continue the use of certain PFAS foams, and some exceptions applied.
According to the Regulation, the ban on the "discharge" of PFAS foams and extinguishers takes effect from September 26, 2022.
Exemptions can be granted if a fire is considered "catastrophic" or had "the potential to be catastrophic", or if the fire is on "a watercraft in state . . . or restricted waters".
The maximum penalty for using PFAS foam in training is 400 penalty units $44,000 at $110 per penalty unit) for a corporation and 200 units, or $22,000, for an individual.
Wordwide problems with PFAS have led to the development of alternative "fluorine-free firefighting foams".
The South Australian EPA says its ban began on January 30, 2018, with a two-year grace period to January 30 last year.