SUNSHINE Coast Council’s failure to meet the conditions of its State Government environmental authority for the new airport runway was behind the almost complete shutdown of the $300 million plus project, putting the futures of subcontract businesses and the project’s planned opening at risk.
A Department of Environment and Science spokesperson said the management of PFAS contamination on the site was the council’s responsibility.
“Council must comply with the conditions specified in its Environmental Authority (EA), which includes implementing a management plan to dispose or reuse PFAS contaminated soil and groundwater,” the spokesperson said.
“DES understands the site has received significant rainfall in recent weeks and, given the presence of low levels of PFAS at the site, council is testing the water prior to release to ensure it doesn’t cause environmental harm. DES understands that Council is currently finalising its management plan.”
In response to a series of questions, the council said it “takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously”.
“These matters have been addressed previously,” it said in a statement.
“Council has no further comment to make.”
The Sunshine Coast Daily understands the council knew in late 2018 it would have a problem and faced huge costs and delays in meeting environmental standards for the discharge of water into the environment.
In late November it invited tenders for the treatment of the water to the 99 per cent species protection level required. The council received conforming documents in February but has not proceeded.
Advice provided to the Sunshine Coast Daily was that it could take up to a year to properly treat to 99 per cent species protection level, the 200 megalitres of PFAS-contaminated water that now lays contained across the runway construction site.
PFAS could only be treated in low volumes which meant a lot of time was needed to reach the specified purity levels.
Decontamination costs for groundwater and soil at other Australian airports have run to tens of millions of dollars.
Airport Expansion Project leader Ross Ullman this week said testing that had been conducted on the site showed Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, known as PFAS, was evident only in small concentrations.
Even small amounts of the chemicals contained in fire-fighting foam used at the airport between 2004 and 2010 could spread quickly through the environment according to experts.
One who spoke with the Daily on the condition of anonymity said PFAS was “incredibly mobile”.
“If you spill a bit you would find traces two kilometres downstream,” he said. “There’s a high water table. If bores in properties at Pacific Paradise and Mudjimba were tested it would likely be detected.”
He said the state environment department had set standards that required extremely low concentrations for PFAS chemicals which were “everywhere in the environment”.
“It means a lot of places face issues,” the source said.
The concern was that PFAS chemicals accumulated in fish, prawns, crabs and birds adversely impacting feeding and breeding.
For that reason the ecological standards represented by 99 per cent species protection were at 300 times lower concentration levels than the standard for drinking water for human consumption.
Contractors working on the project were told last Friday to stop work, pack up and vacate the site because wet weather had made conditions unworkable.
Most have concentrated their resources on the project, turning away other opportunities to focus solely on it for what was expected to be at least a year of continuous work.
They were now scrambling to find other contracts.
Subcontractors Alliance head Les Williams said if there were no other work available for machines and workers to go to, businesses would be put at risk.
He said there would also be establishment, disestablishment and re-establishment costs which arguably should be compensated.
In a press conference this week Mr Ullman said the cost of the delays and how quickly water could be treated and removed had still to be assessed.
“This is a major project, it’s in a sensitive environment,” he said. “We need to be responsible in the way in which we deal with this and we need to be responsible in the way in which we deal with council’s money. We can’t afford to have a contractor making claims associated with the inability to operate efficiently and yes it’s an issue that challenges every major project.”
The ABC reported yesterday Sunshine Coast Council said it was working closely with the contractor to minimise costs to the overall project.
“This remains a work in progress within the context of the contractual terms,” a spokesperson said.
“This analysis is continuing in good faith on the part of both parties, and is also taking into account that some work that can continue is being undertaken on site at the present time.
“The objective of all parties is to be able to achieve a full resumption of work as quickly as possible once weather and site conditions improve, in order to enable this to occur in a safe manner.”
Contractors who spoke to the Daily said once conditions of approval were met it may be possible to reschedule a program of works progressively as water was pumped from areas, treated and then discharged.
Sunshine Coast Council has ignored questions about when water was last pumped from the site, why there has been a delay in treating groundwater and releasing it to the environment, when it expected that to take place and the length of time required.
“Council has addressed the matter of water management on site extensively. We have nothing further to add at this time,” a spokesperson said.
Contractor John Holland has twice failed to respond to detailed questions put to it about the issues.
The environmental licence that allowed the construction project to proceed included seven stringent conditions around soil and groundwater testing, including completion of an investigative report by an appropriately qualified person, soil and water sampling and the appointment and other measures considered to be comprehensive.
Industry sources said such programs also typically included oversight by a government-certified auditor as independent assessor of the work to give confidence as to what has been done.