Central Queensland farmer Tim Van Itallie is worried for the future of the prosperous farming community of Biloela following the detection of toxic chemicals in the water.
- PFAS has been detected downstream from the Callide Power Station
- Until 2019 PFAS was found in firefighting foams, which were used at the site for 32 years
- CS Energy is working with nearby residents testing their bores to determine the extent of the contamination
PFAS, a group of chemicals formerly used in firefighting foams, has been detected at levels 150 per cent higher than the government health guidelines, downstream from the Callide Power Station near Biloela.
Mr Van Itallie said he had just finished watering his mungbeans one kilometre away from that testing site when he heard about the contamination on the radio.
“Just from what I’ve seen in the media and past cases of this, it’s financially devastating, so [I’m] definitely pretty worried about it all,” he said.
“I just hope the levels are low enough that it’s not an issue, but until it’s proven otherwise we will just have to wait and see.”
Callide Power Station owners, CS Energy, tested various locations for PFAS, Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, along Callide Creek between the station and about four kilometres downstream.
Due to the proximity to residents, authorities are most concerned about the Linkes Road testing site, with levels of 0.109 micrograms per litre, which was higher than the drinking water health guideline of 0.07 micrograms per litre.
The highest sample reading was 2.55 micrograms per litre at a testing site close to the power station.
“Over coming weeks and months we’ll be sampling on and off our site, and working with potentially affected landholders to test their bores they use for domestic purposes,” CS Energy’s general manager Brett Smith said.
The company stopped using PFAS in 2019 when the nationwide ban was introduced and said the health of the community was its top priority.
‘I’m pretty concerned’
Mungbeans for human consumption and hay for beef cattle were grown on Mr Van Itallie’s property, which is just outside of the immediate testing area.
“Ground water, surface water all flows downstream, I’m about a kilometre downstream … so I’m pretty concerned it’s possibly gone past this point,” he said.
There is no government regulation in place prohibiting commercial farming on a property contaminated with PFAS.
Mr Van Itallie bought the Biloela Callide Road property six months ago but said he wouldn’t have if he was aware of possible contamination.
He met with CS Energy and requested his bores be tested but due to proximity was told he would have to wait in line.
A targeted response
Mr Smith, from CS Energy, said approximately 20 landholders closest to the power station would be tested first and then those outside of the 4km area could get their bores tested.
“We are following Queensland Health guidelines [and they] are really focused on where private houses are involved [and] we want to do further sampling,” Mr Smith said.
Testing started on the first lot of private properties on Friday, February 12.
“The experts are currently designing a sampling program that may go further afield but right now it’s important we focus on those identified landowners for proximity,” he said.
Mr Smith said most landholders in the area used a combination of rainwater tanks and bore water for irrigation and drinking.
Queensland Health said landholders in the area could reduce their exposure to the toxin by not using the bore water to: drink, prepare food, shower or swim in, and by not eating food grown using it.
“The potential effects of exposure to PFAS to human health continue to be studied,” a statement read.
Mr Smith said firefighting foams containing PFAS had been used on the site for 32 years before legislation was changed in 2019.
“We’ve used some of those older style firefighting foams here in small quantities and infrequently, but we have used them,” Mr Smith said.
He said results from further bore testing would take another four to six weeks.
Landholder Mary Walton is located about a kilometre from the testing site and is within the immediate testing area.
“We’ve lived here for a long time and we really haven’t had any problems, we have had floods and I know they do sample the water but we haven’t heard anything for quite a long time.”
Laureate Professor Ravi Naidu, from the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment, said people could be exposed to PFAS through milk, meat and growing vegetables.
“The challenge with growing vegetables and animals is that even though the concentration may be low, just above drinking water standard, if you are using water to grow vegetables, vegetables can bioaccumulate,” he said.
“Therefore, the concentration in vegetables could be far higher than what you want to ingest.
“The same with feeding cattle with water or irrigating your pasture.”
‘Still being studied’
Banana Shire Council is awaiting test results from eight bores to see whether it has affected the drinking supply.
Central Queensland University’s head of science, Shaneel Chandra, said each contamination was different because PFAS was a group of chemicals made from 5,000 different compounds.
“There’s been a lot of studies on animals and the studies have shown that PFAS affect the productive system, kidneys and the liver — whether that translates into the same effects into humans is still being studied,” Dr Chandra said.
Dr Chandra said it was fast moving and spread via air and water.
“The regulations tend to follow the science behind the issue and the science is still getting a lot more information so I’m assuming the regulations aren’t too far behind.”