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It's a million-tonne headache for a $2 billion project: a giant pile of soil contaminated with toxic fire-fighting chemicals the WA Government doesn't know what to do with.
About 900,000 cubic metres of the soil — excavated to build the new 8.5km railway tunnel linking Perth airport and Forrestfield — will be stockpiled on a Forrestfield industrial site, up to 14m high, until it can find a long-term solution, according to City of Kalamunda documents.
But the Government will not say exactly how much of the chemicals — known as PFAS — are present in the soil, how much it will cost to remediate, or its long-term plans for the material.
It is the latest example of how governments are struggling to deal with the legacy of toxic foams on fire-fighting and aviation sites around Australia, coming after a recent ABC Four Corners investigation into water contamination near Defence bases.
The link tunnel passes near the Department of Fire and Emergency Services' (DFES) training academy site in Forrestfield — where levels of PFAS exceeding Australian health guidelines have been recorded— and Perth airport, where a toxic foam called 3M Brightwater was used until 2003.
The chemicals are also found in products like non-stick cookwear, furniture and clothing, but take a long time to break down and are often found at low levels in groundwater, soil, humans and animals.
The problems faced by the Public Transport Authority (PTA) were outlined to the City of Kalamunda council, which approved its application to store excavated soil at the site several months ago.
According to the agenda of Kalamunda's July council meeting, the PTA did not want the soil kept on the Forrestfield site long-term.
But the toxic dirt will remain until the relevant parties can find a permanent solution.
Soil dump only short term fix, says City
It appears the PFAS contamination required a change in plans by the PTA, which originally planned to store the soil in a less industrial area of Forrestfield.
"It is understood that with the issue of the PFAS being known, the PTA is unable to dispose of the fill as previously planned, hence the need for the current application to temporarily store fill on the subject site," the meeting agenda said.
But the PTA did not tell the City of Kalamunda about the contamination of the soil, and it was the Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) that advised the City of the likely presence of PFAS.
A PTA spokeswoman said PFAS chemicals were detected at the Forrestfield-Airport Link site in 2015, but levels within excavated soil were "low", were not caused by the project, and were being monitored by the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER).
"We continue to test the excavated soil for a range of parameters including PFAS," the spokeswoman said.
"This was most recently done last week in accordance with the project-specific environmental management plan."
Sources have told the ABC the firefighters' training academy or Perth Airport could be the source of the contamination.
The academy is on the WA Government's contaminated sites register, but DWER said there was no evidence to suggest that site had contaminated soil in the railway tunnel area.
There is little public information about the level of PFAS contamination at Commonwealth airport sites.
Airservices Australia, the Federal Government-owned corporation responsible for firefighting at airports, has again delayed the release of an investigation into the extent of PFAS contamination at Perth Airport which was due in March.
A spokesman said it hoped the report would be available "in coming months" and declined the ABC's request for an interview.
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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