VicWater PFAS Draft NEMP2 Submission

20 June 2019

National Chemicals Working Group (NCWG) of the Heads of EPAs Australia and New Zealand (HEPA)
Draft NEMP 2.0 Consultation Feedback
PFAS NEMP Coordinator
c/o Emerging Contaminants Section
Department of the Environment and Energy
GPO Box 787 Canberra ACT 2601
Email: PFASstandards@environment.gov.au

Dear PFAS NEMP2 Coordinator

Re: VicWater PFAS Draft NEMP2 submission

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the PFAS Draft National Environmental Management Plan Version 2 (PFAS NEMP2).

On behalf of our members, the Victorian Water Industry Association (VicWater) is hereby providing comments relating to the Federal government’s PFAS NEMP2 consultation.

VicWater is the peak body for the Victorian water industry, with its membership constituted of Victoria’s 19 statutory water corporations. Those corporations are responsible for the provision of urban water and wastewater services, rural water supply including irrigation and related drainage services. Some water corporations also operate reticulated recycled water schemes and manage waterways and drainage systems.

The comments and recommendations of this submission are based on a water industry workshop held on 15 May 2019 with 19 Victorian water corporation professionals, representing 12 (of 19) water corporations. All corporations had additionally been invited to provide comments directly to VicWater for a joint inclusion in this submission.

Our industry is committed to managing environmental risks through the provision of water, sewerage and recycled water services, including PFAS. We applaud the NEMP2’s aim to protect communities, ecosystems and other environmental values from risks associated with PFAS. We support EPA Victoria’s precautionary approach to PFAS and its associated adaptive plan as well as the use of a PFAS management framework in the NEMP inclusive of wastewater inputs, processing and outputs. The Victorian water industry acknowledges the uncertainty with regard to the behaviour of PFAS, including PFAS precursors in wastewater treatment process and supports additional research in this area.

The NEMP2 recognises that while water corporations have an important role to play in managing PFAS risk, they are neither responsible for generating the PFAS which enters their wastewater treatment plants nor influence where the sources of PFAS enter the catchment.
Water corporations are currently embarking on a collaborative process with EPA Victoria to deliver the periodic license review, including a broad-based risk assessment of all emerging contaminants at each Victorian water corporation’s wastewater treatment plant. The results of this review will identify priority risks – on a site-by-site basis – for water corporations to address in the coming years. Of critical importance is that depending on the results of this risk assessment, the action plan for an individual site may or may not prioritise specific actions relating to PFAS above actions to address other risks. A preferred approach would see water corporations manage PFAS risks in the context of other emerging contaminants and apply the General Environmental Duty (GED) holistically.

Victorian Water Industry Specific Challenges & Suggested Recommendations

  1. PFAS sampling is expensive and resource intense; the distribution of PFAS in the landscape is diffuse and questions arise relating to the usefulness of a sampling regime. Baseline measurements might prove challenging, given most PFAS sampling would likely contain legacy leachate/background levels; progress based on new initiatives would hence be difficult to measure.
    •  It is suggested NEMP2 include:
      • Guidance as to where and how to sample for PFAS.
      • An inventory of potential point-source pollution sources of PFAS, which could assist with this task and would include engagement of the various industries.
  2. Monitoring and risk assessments: currently, the expectations seem unclear and questions arise as to whether to only sample PFAS or a range of emerging contaminants. There seems to be unclear expectations relating to the magnitude and breadth of a new sampling regime. If sampling and risk assessments are undertaken as a ‘learning experience’, processes should be in place to share learnings effectively across various industries and stakeholders. A risk-based approach is not applicable for monitoring, recycled water, biosolids, licences and groundwater due to cost and resource intensity.
    • It is suggested that EPA Victoria establish a sampling protocol for water corporations to undertake a PFAS monitoring program all at the same time, and analysed at the same lab, to gain a snapshot picture of status quo. Based on this information, EPA Victoria could gain an understanding of current PFAS levels in effluent and recycled water in order to help develop risk-based guidelines.
  3. The General Environmental Duty (GED) is future rather than legacy focused; this provides challenges to the water industry as it is at the receiving end of the catchment with little reach to influence PFAS contamination into its receiving waters.
    • It is recommended that EPA Victoria work with industry and water corporations beyond compliance.
  4. Licence agreements and their associated current review include a broad-based risk assessment of all emerging contaminants (which may or may not prioritise PFAS).
    • It is recommended that EPA Victoria adopt an approach which would see water corporations manage PFAS risks in the context of other emerging contaminants and apply the General Environmental Duty (GED) holistically.
  5. Beneficial reuse of biosolids and recycled water will require a holistic and health-centric approach, which will need to be articulated more clearly. There is a current dichotomy between the current mandate to encourage beneficial reuse of biosolids and recycled water, versus the (as yet unknown) risk of PFAS potentially impacting human health. Biosolids applications on land could potentially lead to future health impacts and landfilling causes potential detrimental leachate. Clear expectations relating to the disposal and/or treatment of PFAS are needed.
    • It is suggested that federal and state governments:
      • Support further research to understand the environmental and human health risks from the use of PFAS contaminated biosolids and recycled water.
      • Articulate a holistic and health-centric approach, and incentivise and appropriately resource solutions to develop new innovative solutions to treating and disposing of PFAS.
  6. Guidance: There appears to be confusion over whether the NEMP2 is a legally binding document or a guidance document (a standard). Questions were raised as to whether there are transition plans in place to support water corporations towards reducing PFAS levels. Further, the document states that “further work, in collaboration with the water industry, will be undertaken to establish criteria and guidance for water authorities and environmental regulators based on current science” (Section 15, Wastewater Treatment, p.61), without stating a timeframe.
    • It is recommended that:
      • Clearer water industry specific guidance and information (State of Knowledge - SoK) relating to the application of NEMP2 is produced, including sampling regimes, treatment of influent, effluent and reuse points.
      • NEMP2 transition arrangements are spelt out and a transition plan developed to support industries towards reducing PFAS levels; including the application of the precautionary principle.
      • A suitable government body or association is identified to disseminate national and international best practice and scientific knowledge (SoK) for distribution to the Australian water industry, including national and international case studies.
      • Water-industry specific working groups are established (nationally and state-wide) – convened by the suitable industry bodies and/or associations to contribute to the SoK and collaborate with state EPAs to develop industry specific proposals and submissions relating to risk reduction/minimisation.
      • A timeframe is communicated for providing criteria and guidance to the water industry.
  7. Customer willingness to pay: the Victorian Essential Services Commission’s (ESC) PREMO approach stipulates extensive customer consultation to determine a water corporation’s future expenditure. In light of PFAS sampling and treatment resource intensity, uncertainty around surrounding research findings and potential health impacts, this approach could prove challenging. If water corporations were to reduce PFAS during its treatment processes, the cost of upgrading and/or changing infrastructure would be substantial. Consultation relating to PFAS has been undertaken with industry; not with the broader community (yet), which will be of a sensitive nature.
    • It is suggested that:
      • EPA Victoria consult with the ESC as to next steps relating to willingness-to-pay consultation and/or potential incorporation into the Statement of Obligations (SoO).
      • A concise community message plan be developed, including watching briefs.
  8. Other comments:
    • EPA Victoria needs to play a crucial role in reducing PFAS at the source, where a reduction of PFAS entering the catchment can be achieved through education and enforcement (rather than regulating the waste treatment plant operator). An EPA education-heavy approach will likely not result in large-scale PFAS reductions; it is recommended that EPA Victoria map polluters and focus on point-source pollution prevention efforts to stop PFAS entering the catchments in the first place (through regulation and fines). It is also recommended that EPA Victoria conduct more regular auditing of trade waste customers who may be discharging PFAS.
    • Data from a previous PFAS assessment pilot program with specific focus on wastewater treatment plants should be shared with stakeholders.
    • Appendix D, Section 9.3 (p.97) could include an example around the use of recycled water within 200m of a waterway (as recycled water is typically reused in close proximity to wastewater plants and historically, wastewater treatment plants are sighted near waterways).
    • The case study listed in Section 15.3 – PFAS contamination of a wastewater treatment system (p.62) - is not practicable as there are no PFAS approved disposal facilities in the region.
  9. On behalf of our members, VicWater is looking forward to further engagement with EPA Victoria and contributing to the dissemination of emerging knowledge about PFAS and understanding how the NEMP will be applied (beyond an Interim Position Statement).

For further information, please contact our Manager, Policy & Regulation, James Cleaver, at james.cleaver@vicwater.org.au or call 03 9639 8868.

Yours sincerely

Peter Morison
CEO
VicWater

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