Within a month of Shine Justice (ASX: SHJ) securing more than $150 million in settlements for clients over exposure to PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl) chemicals, Penrith-based EPOC Enviro has for the first time in Australia installed its technology that addresses this very problem for a local council.
Last week the environmental engineering firm commenced a $2 million project with the Shoalhaven City Council on the NSW South Coast to extract harmful PFAS substances from landfill using remediation technology.
The installation is incidentally situated just 40km north of the Aboriginal community involved in the latest class action settlement with the Commonwealth.
Years of research and development (R&D) led to the discovery of EPOC Enviro’s SAFF (surface active foam fractionation) technology, which removes harmful PFAS compounds leeched into soils and water systems from industrial use and landfill.
EPOC Enviro managing director Pete Murphy says the Australian made technology has successfully remediated PFAS from more than 24 locations in continental Europe, the UK and the USA, but the market is just starting to move in Australia.
He says the Shoalhaven City Council project is one of the first of many more to come in Australia due to the far-reaching need to remove PFAS compounds from contaminated sites in Australia and around the world.
"If you start extrapolating scale out to every landfill in the world – we think every airport and defence base and firefighter training area and probably one in every three industrial sites all have PFAS contamination at a scale that’s going to require remediating – then you start seeing that it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry,” Murphy tells Business News Australia.
"In Minnesota alone, just one state in America, they’re estimating a $28 billion remediation bill over these next 10 years, according to a report released this week, so the overall US market probably runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars over the coming 20 to 30 years.
"Shoalhaven is, in some ways, one of the very first sites of what is likely to be hundreds of thousands of sites globally going forward. We’re confident other utilities out there will follow Shoalhaven’s lead."
PFAS are an umbrella group of around 4,000 compounds, including perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS), that are known to be harmful to human health. PFAS compounds are used in firefighting foam and chemical weapons and are also found in some household products and used in the medical industry.
These compounds have been considered dangerous enough to warrant being listed as a persistent organic pollutant (POP) on the Stockholm Convention, and recently designated as hazardous substances by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which puts them under the US Federal Government’s CERCLA legislation.
PFAS compounds under CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act) gives the US Federal Government full control over the transportation and use of that product and places responsibility on organisations that have those compounds in their waste streams.
Closer to home, EPOC Enviro's technology was first trialled in 2019 for the Australian Department of Defence at the Army Aviation Centre in Oakey, QLD and was successful in remediating PFAS from more than 140 million litres of water.
This came after EPOC Enviro worked with the Department of Defence back in 2015 after a site in Newcastle made headlines that it was releasing PFAS chemicals into adjacent properties due to groundwater PFAS contamination in its firefighting training areas which leached into the soil and into the water system.
Murphy says governments will need to step in with environmental protection measures at a national level to ban PFAS compounds where they are not compulsory, which he says is most industries outside of the medical sector where the need for some substances outweighs the risk.
“Because of the European and US initiatives to deal with these substances, Australia has been showing a lot of attention under our national environment protection measures [NEPMs],” he says.
There have been calls to permanently ban use of PFAS chemicals because of the “huge implications” of the hazardous substances. “It’s a bad chemistry that needs to be removed from the environment,” he says.
“In very tiny parts-per-trillion volumes, the chemical is problematic to human health – it’s toxic, an endocrine disruptor, carcinogenic, causes birth defects and fertility issues and other health-related issues that have been established and proven, and so nobody wants it in their water.”
There is growing recognition that landfill sites around the world are primary sources of PFAS contamination as they represent the final resting place for PFAS-containing products. These products typically have waterproof, non-stick and stain-resistant properties, such as packaging, mattresses, carpets and furniture.
How SAFF technology works
PFAS substances do not break down naturally and need to be physically removed by remediation to be extracted from contaminated sites and water systems.
“PFAS takes hundreds of years to break down, so what is there is there, and it needs to be removed. Any sites that have dealt with PFAS-rich products are going to have to start to make a plan on how to remediate that from their sites,” Murphy explains.
SAFF was conceived by EPOC Enviro after years of R&D as a sustainably engineered solution to permanently remove PFAS contaminants from the environment.
The foam fractionation SAFF technology mops up the PFAS compound by bringing it to the surface in rising air bubbles in a large vessel containing the contaminated water using a helix structure. Separated PFAS molecules are then concentrated, creating a compact PFAS concentrate for destruction.
“We’re able to harvest the PFAS out of the water and leave behind clean water. For every swimming pool of water that we put through our plant we extract about a coffee cup of highly concentrated PFAS and the rest of it is clean water.”
Shoalhaven City Council’s waste operations coordinator, Peter Windley, says he is “100 per cent” satisfied with the way SAFF is performing to remove PFAS.
“With any new technology there’s an element of risk, but we did our homework, we looked at what’s out there in the marketplace and we identified the benefits of the SAFF system over others. While we’re only a short while into this project, we’re already amazed at the output,” Windley says.
PFAS in the headlines
Last month in May, the Commonwealth made a $132 million settlement with 30,000 landowners exposed to toxic PFAS chemicals, which leaked from seven Department of Defence military bases across Australia.
The sites were in Wagga Wagga and Richmond in New South Wales, Wodonga in Victoria, Darwin in the Northern Territory, Townsville in Queensland, Edinburgh in South Australia, and Bullsbrook in Western Australia.
There are more cases reaching headlines, with news last month that law firm Shine Justice (ASX: SHJ) settled another class action lawsuit relating to exposure to PFAS chemicals to the tune of $22 million, subject to Federal Court approval.
This latest settlement involves a dispute between the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council and the Commonwealth of Australia, with affected community members claiming losses to property value and use and enjoyment of the land, as well as cultural losses due to exposure to firefighting foam around Wreck Bay in the Jervis Bay Territory.
The settlement also comes after Shine successfully secured a $215.5 million landmark settlement for thousands of victims of PFAS chemical contamination via a deal struck in 2020.
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