2003/6 + 2013/18 + 2022: Katherine (NT). PFAS Chemicals, B.pseudomallei, E.coli, Molybdenum

Katherine (Northern Territory) – PFAS Chemicals

Katherine’s PFAS water treatment plant finally ready for action — but more will follow, experts warn


April 19 2022

In a small remote town in the outback, a multi-million-dollar mega facility shipped in from America will soon turn potentially toxic drinking water into some of the cleanest in Australia.

It is the largest to be built so far and one of the first, but experts and activists say many more will be needed as Australia begins to deal with PFAS contamination.

A few years ago, residents of Katherine received the alarming news that the water they had been using was contaminated by a group of human-made chemicals known as PFAS, which some experts say are linked to cancers and other serious health concerns.

Between 1988 and 2004, during firefighting training at the Tindal RAAF Base, PFAS leached into the Katherine River and spread kilometres through the highly connected aquifer below.

The government advised against eating fish caught from the river, the local swimming pool was closed, bore-reliant properties surrounding the base were delivered bottled water by Defence and residents lined up for blood tests.

A major study on the health effects of PFAS and a landmark class action were launched and an interim water treatment plant was brought in, but its size left many in fear the clean water would run out.

Since then, residents have been clinging to the promise Australia’s largest PFAS water treatment plant would be built and after years of delays it has been confirmed the facility will be completed by August at the latest.

Senior project manager at Power and Water Corporation Liam Early said it would deliver “very high-quality water,” and agreed it would likely be the first of many needed across Australia as the nation began to grapple with the enormity of PFAS contamination.

“PFAS is a problem around Australia in a multitude of places,” he said.

Above guidelines four times


The Power and Water Corporation has previously revealed the town’s water supply had levels of PFAS above those guidelines on four occasions since testing began last year.

But the corporation and the Health Minister both refused to explain how high those results were on the grounds that monthly rolling averages, and not daily averages, are more relevant when assessing health impacts.

“That is something that the health experts advise me is looking at the cumulative figure,” Health Minister Natasha Fyles said last month, when announcing the water restrictions in the town.

“That is the best figure for people to manage their health and that is not just something that the Northern Territory Government has put in place, that is based on national and international [practice].”

The ABC sought access to the data via the NT Information Act but the corporation released the data publicly ahead of statutory deadlines.

The data shows average individual results were also above the guideline in late April (0.095) and late June (0.085).

A fourth individual recording in mid-June was below the average, but some of the samples included in the recording were above the guideline.

“Despite the occurrence of these four slightly elevated results, the rolling monthly average for the Katherine public drinking water is still below the lifetime exposure health-based guidance value or the tolerable daily intake,” Power and Water Corporation said in a statement.

(Average detections 2017-18 Power and Water Corporation)

2017/18: Katherine Reticulation (Tap Water) PFHxS/PFOS 0.003μg/L

2017/18: Katherine Raw Bore Water PFAS PFHxS/PFOS 0.26μg/L

2017: Katherine Water Treatment Bores PFAS Chemicals 0.33μg/L* (Source The Courier)

2017: Katherine (Bore + River) PFAS Chemicals 0.079μg/L* (Source The Courier)

2017: Katherine Tap Water PFAS Chemicals 0.05μg/L* (Source The Courier)

2017/18: Katherine Raw Bore Water) PFOA PFHxS/PFOS 0.05μg/L

Testing: Power and Water Corporation

FSANZ Guideline: PFHxS/PFOS 0.07μg/L

FSANZ Guideline: PFOA 0.56μg/L

PFAS are a class of manufactured chemicals that have been used since the 1950s to make products that resist heat, stains, grease and water. PFAS has been identified as an emerging contaminant and investigations are underway in all Australian jurisdictions.

Bore contamination 27 times higher than guidelines


“… In March, the Department of Defence tested the tank that holds Mr Cavenagh’s bore water, which returned a reading of 1.89 micrograms of PFAS per litre — 27 times higher than the recommended guideline of 0.07 for drinking water.

Subsequent tests of his bores showed levels of 1.45 micrograms per litre, almost 21 times higher than the maximum acceptable drinking water level.

“The fact they knew about it [PFAS contamination] in 2004 and nothing came out until 12 years later, that’s my biggest issue,” Mr Cavenagh said.

“Because if things could have been prevented, they should have been prevented.”

Mr Cavenagh said Defence had helped to pay for repairs to his rainwater tank earlier this year, and supplied more tanks for his adjacent properties.

He is one of dozens of residents with contaminated bores to whom Defence now supplies drinking water.

But he is still apprehensive about how the chemicals could affect him, and said information from Defence was not always clear.

“They haven’t just come out and said, ‘don’t eat your tomatoes’, or ‘don’t eat your mangoes’. How do we know they’re not contaminated?”…

‘He didn’t seem to think there was a problem’


Mr Fordham thought the tests done by Defence showed the levels of PFAS chemicals in his water supply, including his bore which irrigates his mangoes, were up to 0.4 micrograms per litre, about six times over the accepted limit for drinking water.

“He didn’t seem to think there was a problem,” Mr Fordham said.

It was not until he went through his paperwork from Defence that Mr Fordham realised how bad the contamination of his property was.

The documents show his home tank has a PFAS level of 4.6 micrograms a litre — nearly 66 times the deemed safe limit for drinking water.

The bore that irrigates his mangoes is not far behind, with a reading of 4.2.

Chemical shock: Govt backflip on Katherine’s water

 April 3 2017: The Courier. https://www.thecourier.com.au/story/4573270/the-poisoned-water-of-katherine/?cs=2452

And it’s not the only town in the spotlight

KATHERINE’s water supply is poisoned, officially.

The Federal Government has dropped the health limits for the chemicals which have already been found in the town’s water and bores surrounding the Tindal RAAF Base.

There has been an official change of mind about the safety of the town’s water supply after federal guidelines officially changed today.

NT Government health officials today again declared the water safe to drink despite a dramatic drop in the allowed limits of the chemicals which have leached into the Katherine water supply from firefighting foams used at Tindal between 1988 and 2004.

The greatest fear is the contamination of the bore which provide all the town’s water for weeks or months of the year at the end of the dry season.

There is no indication yet from the government what residents will be expected to drink now that supply will be declared unsafe.

Previously the Federal allowable limit for the PFAS group of chemicals was 0.5 micrograms per litre, now it is 0.07.

Power and Water Corporation testing of Katherine’s water supply last year found the water treatment plant’s bores were at 0.33, well above the health drinking water limit.

Bore water blended with river water was found to be 0.079 and tap water was found to be 0.05, perilously close to the new standard.

NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles.

Health Minister Natasha Fyles is holding press conference in Darwin now to advise of the new drop in standards.

“The NT’s water supplies are all okay expect for Katherine which are at times above the tolerable intake levels.”

Ms Fyles said the town’s water supply at the end of the dry season, she said for a period of several weeks to a month, was fully supplied by bore water which had been found to be above the safe limits.

More than 40 people living in the Tindal area are now being supplied with bottled or other water supplies.

She said the NT Government was “having a conversation” with the Department of Defence on how to solve Katherine’s drinking water problem.

She would not reveal what those conversations were.

There is no indication the people of Katherine would be provided alternate drinking supplies today if they were concerned.

The Health Minister Natasha Fyles said the Territory Government is lobbying Defence to fast-track the sampling of more ground water bores for residents between RAAF base Tindal and the Katherine township.

The NT Government has pushed for voluntary blood testing offered to be Katherine residents, along with health and welfare services to concerned locals.

“We want Territorians at affected sites included in the national epidemiological study and we want them given access to the counselling services being offered to residents around RAAF Base Williamstown in NSW and the Army Aviation Centre at Oakey in Queensland,” Ms Fyles said.

Health officials said the impact on eating fish would be investigated as would the impact on using contaminated water on local horticulture crops.

“Current research is inconclusive and it’s not known if exposure to PFAS causes any significant health problems in people, but the potential for adverse health effects can’t be ignored,” Ms Fyles said.

“The Commonwealth is taking a precautionary approach to this emerging national issue, introducing some of the most conservative guidelines in the world to ensure Australians minimise their exposure to PFAS.”

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of manufactured chemicals that were used in many domestic and industrial products, including fire-fighting foam used at Commonwealth airports and Defence bases.

PFAS contamination is predominantly an issue around these sites, which is why Defence is conducting detailed national investigations, including Tindal RAAF base in the Katherine region and RAAF Base Darwin.

There are many types of PFAS, with the best known examples being perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS).

“The Commonwealth guidelines provide a tolerable daily intake (TDI) for PFOS and PFOA,” Ms Fyles said.

“These TDI’s are designed to advise Australians on the amount of the chemical in food or drinking water that can be consumed daily over a lifetime, without any appreciable risk to health.”

The new national recommended health based guidance values in the form of a TDI are as follows:

  • for PFOS, the TDI is 0.02 μg/kg bw/day
  • for PFOA, the TDI is 0.16 μg/kg bw/day
  • for PFHxS, FSANZ concluded that there was insufficient data to determine a TDI.

“PFAS is an issue that many Australians are aware of and concerned about – we are taking a whole-of-government approach to answer people’s questions and ensure Territorians can take control over their health choices,” Ms Fyles said.

The Northern Territory’s Chief Health Officer has re-examined water testing in Katherine, in light of the new report and has confirmed the public drinking water is within the recommended guidelines and this monitoring will continue.

Initial testing of some private and supply bores in the Katherine region around Tindal RAAF base showed the existence of PFAS and Defence is continuing to provide bottled water to about 50 homes.

“Power and Water carries out an extensive sampling program throughout the year on its drinking water sources, in accordance with Department of Health approval,” John Pudney, general manager of water services at Power and Water said.

“In Katherine, Power and Water sources between 70 per cent to 90 per cent of its drinking water from the Katherine River and blends it with groundwater from two production bores.

“There may be times during the first rains of the wet season that bacteria levels peak in the Katherine River and it becomes highly turbid and reliance on bore water increases. Monitoring will continue throughout the year.”

The Director of Biosecurity and Animal Welfare at the Department of Primary Industry and Resources said the new guidelines should not impact the ability of Territory primary producers to trade produce to markets interstate and overseas.

“Reports from heavily contaminated interstate sites had no detectable levels of contamination for most fruit and vegetables tested. These results give confidence to the horticultural industries in the Katherine area,” Michelle Rodan said.

“While the FSANZ Guidelines recommend a small total daily intake of meat from contaminated areas, these results are based on heavily contaminated sites at Oakey and Williamtown.

“The Northern Territory doesn’t have any sites with comparable rates of contamination.

The Health Minister Natasha Fyles said the Territory Government is lobbying Defence to fast-track the sampling of more ground water bores for residents between RAAF base Tindal and the Katherine township.

“We have also requested that Defence provide voluntary blood testing and health and welfare services to concerned locals. We want Territorians at affected sites included in the national epidemiological study and we want them given access to the counselling services being offered to residents around RAAF Base Williamstown in NSW and the Army Aviation Centre at Oakey in Queensland,” she said.

“Investigations have already begun at RAAF Base Darwin and RAAF Base Tindal with testing at Roberston barracks due to start mid-year.

The NT PFAS interagency working group is continuing to work with Defence to ensure that detailed environmental investigations have local input and that the community is regularly updated.

The proactive monitoring of Rapid and Ludmilla Creeks already undertaken by the interagency group is now being reassessed in light of new guidelines released today and will be updated in April.

The current advice for Ludmilla and Rapid Creeks is that there is a low public health risk associated with eating the long bums and periwinkles from these creeks.

Phase two testing of fish, prawns and crabs is expected to be completed by June.

Defence has rescheduled a public community meeting for Katherine on April 12, after cancelling an earlier meeting a month ago, perhaps with knowledge about today’s drop in the federal PFAS limits.

Dept of Defence announces ’interim’ water treatment plant for Katherine

KATHERINE will receive an interim water treatment plant paid for by the Department of Defence to help the town clean water contaminated with PFAS chemicals.

Today’s announcement by Defence Minister Marise Payne comes on the same day the NT Government has announced the first town water restrictions in Australiabecause of PFAS contamination.

The Katherine water emergency plan will take effect from August 21.

Defence’s announcement of the treatment plant comes less than three weeks after federal and Territory health officials declared the Katherine water supply safe to drink.

The water treatment plant is expected to be operational in the final quarter of 2017.

A joint media release from Ms Payne and Chief Minister Michael Gunner stated that the water in Katherine is still safe to drink and that “there is minimal risk to human health posed by short-term exceedances of the tolerable daily intake for drinking water”.

“Both Governments, however, recognise that community concern exists in the Katherine community about the low-level presence of PFAS in the Katherine water supply and are taking these practical steps to provide confidence and reassurance to the Katherine community that its water supply continues to remain safe to drink.”

Health Minister Natasha Fyles said compulsory restrictions are necessary to help manage water demand during Katherine’s peak usage months of September and October.

“During these months water usage spikes by around 50 per cent,” the Health Minister said.

Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) contamination is a legacy issue Katherine residents inherited from Defence’s RAAF base Tindal and came to prominence last year. It was used in fire fighting foam at RAAF base Tindal and traces of it have been found in the Katherine’s water supply.

“Reducing the amount of water Katherine residents use will improve the ability for Power and Water to manage the quality of the town’s drinking water to ensure PFAS levels stay within the Health Based Guidance Values,” Ms Fyles said.

“While we work with the Department of Defence on long term solutions, including new water sources, I have asked Power and Water to instigate compulsory water conservation measures to help reduce overall demand and allow us to keep the use of groundwater to a minimum.”

Defence officials are continuing to investigate the presence of PFAS chemicals at RAAF Base Tindal, which they said will also include a Human Health Risk Assessment to “inform longer-term measures for managing PFAS”.

“Defence continues to engage with industry experts, both nationally and internationally, to identify the best management options for PFAS at its sites throughout Australia,” the statement said.

Despite the emergency water restrictions, the NT’s Chief Health Officer has given the reassurance that the town’s reticulated water is safe to drink.

Katherine’s drinking water is made up of a mix of river and bore water.

The Government’s emergency response plan is focused on reducing the amount of bore water in the Katherine drinking supply because of the known higher levels of PFAS contamination in the town’s bore water.

Katherine (Northern Territory) – B.pseudomallei

Clinical literature documents infection by the inhalation of contaminated dust suggesting water supplies open to the environment are at risk. Components of the Katherine water treatment plant, particularly the aerator and reactivator, are uncovered, unsealed and therefore susceptible to dust. Samples were collected from points within the Katherine water treatment plant and distribution system. B. pseudomallei was detected in the treatment plant filter sand and treatment plant clarifier sludge but not in water leaving the treatment plant.

Between 2013 and 2016 B. pseudomallei was detected in untreated water from the Katherine, the Darwin River Reservoir, McMinns borefields and the Adelaide River. Katherine
B. pseudomallei detections are from unchlorinated parts of the water treatment plant. The positive detections in Darwin were from samples of raw water collected prior to the
disinfection process. The Adelaide River positive detection was from a sample of
the sediment in a tank that was offline for cleaning.
Power and Water Corporation Water Quality Report 2016
B. pseudomallei is the agent responsible for Meliodosis, an infectious disease

Katherine (Northern Territory) – E.coli

2003/4: Katherine E coli (org/100ml) 1 positive detection, 99.4% samples within compliance


Thermotolerant coliforms are a sub-group of coliforms that are able to grow at 44.5 ± 0.2°C. E. coli is the most common thermotolerant coliform present in faeces and is regarded as the most specific indicator of recent faecal contamination because generally it is not capable of growth in the environment. In contrast, some other thermotolerant coliforms (including strains of Klebsiella, Citrobacter and Enterobacter) are able to grow in the environment and their presence is not necessarily related to faecal contamination. While tests for thermotolerant coliforms can be simpler than for E. coli, E. coli is considered a superior indicator for detecting faecal contamination…” ADWG

Katherine (Northern Territory) – Molybdenum

2005/6: Katherine (Northern Territory) – 0.1mg/L (highest level detected

Molybdenum: ADWG Guideline 0.05mg/L. A group 6 chemical element, which forms carbides and is often used in high strength steel alloys. Also used in pigments and catalysts. Higher concentrations have been reported in the vicinity of molybdenum mining operations. Fly ash deposited onto soils from coal-fired power stations can be a significant source of molybdenum. Application of fertilisers may also increase the concentration of molybdenum in ground and
surface water.