Academics from a number of Australian universities are calling for the Federal Government to address current deficiencies in the regulation of environmental contaminants, by establishing a Commonwealth Environmental Protection Agency (CEPA).

Associate Professor Robert Niven from UNSW Canberra said that current arrangements for the regulation of environmental contaminants on Commonwealth land are inadequate, and have unnecessarily allowed actual harm to both humans and ecosystems, and the further alienation of previously uncontaminated land.

“Australian communities and ecosystems impacted by environmental contaminants deserve a much stronger and more effective response from the Commonwealth than at present,” he said.

The researchers from UNSW Canberra, UNSW, Macquarie University and Western Sydney University cite three case studies of environmental contamination that demonstrate the deficiencies in the current system.

The three sites; RAAF Williamtown, Wreck Bay in the Jervis Bay Territory, and Sydney Airport, are all contaminated sites that show high concentrations of fluorinated chemicals, which include per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

UNSW Professor Stuart Khan said a CEPA would provide a nationally consistent, whole-of-government body for decisions on contamination by PFASs and other substances, across the entire Commonwealth jurisdiction.

“PFASs are now recognised as global contaminants of high concern due to their high persistence, evidence of toxicity, and ubiquitous use by humans. For the most common PFASs there is evidence of health risks to the liver, kidneys and immune system,” he said.

RAAF Williamtown remains the most prominent Australian case study of the impacts of PFAS contamination on humans and ecosystems, where seven on-site PFAS source areas associated with fire stations and training areas, landfills, waste and sewage treatment plants have been identified. The site was the subject of preliminary investigations in 2006 to 2011 but details assessments weren’t carried out until 2013-2017.

“A properly empowered Commonwealth Environmental Protection Agency with the responsibility to identify and redress the impacts of newly emerging contaminants, is likely to have identified PFASs as targets for regulatory action in the late 1990s or early 2000s, which would have significantly reduced the human and environmental impacts of the contamination,” said Dr Ian Wright, a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science from the University of Western Sydney.

Professor Mark Taylor from Macquarie University said that a CEPA “would provide a strong pool of technical expertise, which in turn would provide it with the critical mass with which to make decisions, take risks – such as funding of research on new technology – and exercise national leadership in an area where it is so desperately needed. In addition, a properly constructed CEPA would be able to address the current regulatory gap that exists between Commonwealth and state and territory lands, which has prevented proper pollution control and management for the benefit of all Australians.”