The Australian arm of global energy giant INPEX was fined $12,600 by the Federal Department of Environment and Energy for breaching its environmental approval by boiling wastewater containing toxic ‘PFAS’ chemicals at its Darwin Harbour plant, new documents reveal.
Documents obtained by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) under Freedom of Information show INPEX boiled toxic wastewater containing PFAS at Bladin Point on Darwin Harbour in September 2018.
This likely released PFAS into the air and allowed it to disperse beyond the site.
The Department’s internal advice states that the offence ‘may have placed the immediate environment including Darwin Harbour at risk of heightened PFAS levels.’
Under its approved environmental management plan, Inpex was required to store water containing PFAS (per-fluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) from firefighting exercises held on the site, and then transport the water interstate for treatment at a licensed facility.
Community kept in the dark
The Department issued INPEX with a fine of $12,600 in April. It is not clear whether the community was notified of the offence beyond a brief reference to the infringement on the Department’s website.
Inpex told the ABC that when it tested its firefighting systems a large amount of wastewater, containing a small amount of PFAS, was generated.
Inpex said that a process called “enhanced evaporation”, designed to minimise the load of wastewater it would be required to truck interstate, was then used.
“Enhanced evaporation was used to reduce the amount of wastewater needing to be transported,” it said.
The company said that it paid the fine even though it believed it had complied with its environment management plan.
Shar Molloy, Director of the Environment Centre NT said, “INPEX has been caught releasing highly toxic chemicals into the Darwin Harbour environment, which is home to threatened wildlife, yet the fine it has received is nothing but a slap on the wrist.
“Darwin Harbour is home to protected marine animals such as dugongs, rare sawfish, sea turtles and several types of dolphin, along with dozens of native bird species.”
PFAS is toxic to human health and is the subject of continuing court cases in Australia and the USA.
The historical release of PFAS from Defence Force bases and airports has raised concern in communities, including Katherine in the Northern Territory, where residents have been found with high levels of the substance and restrictions have been put on eating fish and crustaceans from local rivers.
The Northern Territory government advises people to limit shellfish intake from Darwin Harbour creeks to three times a week.
“The impact of PFAS on the environment is not fully understood, but recent research for the Defence Department finds exposure poses a risk to ecosystems,” Molloy said.
“That the only public notification of this incident seems to be a one-line statement from the Federal Department of the Environment, shows how deficient the Northern Territory’s environmental laws are.
“The NT Government and companies like INPEX that profit from operating here owe it to the NT community to protect us and the environment we love and rely on from toxic industrial pollution.”