The PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (PFAS NEMP) was published in January 2018 by the Heads of EPA (HEPA). The plan provides a consistent framework across Australia for the environmental regulation of PFAS-contaminated materials and sites, and was intended to be a ‘living document’ reflecting the evolving knowledge surrounding PFAS. Since the release of the first version of the NEMP, the HEPA National Chemicals Working Group (NCWG) has been working to clarify and expand on the guidance in the NEMP. A draft ‘version 2.0’ was released in March 2019 and the public consultation period for it closes on 21 June 2019.

The draft NEMP 2.0 contains two kinds of updates ― editorial revisions intended to improve clarity, and new or significantly altered material. The focus of the draft NEMP 2.0 remains on perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS), which are the most widely studied PFAS.

The consultation is being led by each jurisdiction, and coordinated by the NCWG. Open consultation sessions were held by the NCWG and relevant regulatory agencies in all capital cities around Australia in March and April 2019. At this stage feedback is only being sought on the new guidance, but any other feedback can be submitted for consideration in future work.

  • The key changes to version 2.0 that HEPA is seeking feedback on during the consultation period are outlined below:
  • Slight increases to the human health soil guideline values for PFOS and PFOA for residential land use (with gardens and accessible soil) to assess potential human exposure through direct contact with soil. The updated values were derived following a technical review (details are available on the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage website that considered additional relevant studies, including information relating to the uptake of PFAS into plants from soil. Additional guidance is also provided for PFHxS.
  • Consolidation of ecological land-use categories to provide a single, ecological, indirect exposure guideline value for all land-use scenarios. Some guidance is provided on situations where criteria may be over protective (such as intensively developed sites with limited access to soils).
  • A technical review of interim terrestrial biota guideline values. The guideline values for the protection of wildlife through direct exposure through diet have been retained with additional advice; however, the guideline value for the protection of birds has been lowered.
  • New guidance on the unrestricted reuse of PFAS-contaminated soil without a risk assessment for situations where concentrations of PFAS are very low. It is emphasised that consultation with the regulator is required in all instances of soil reuse due to the wide variety of possible scenarios, and that the NEMP does not override state and territory regulations or frameworks. The principle underlying the reuse of soil without a risk assessment is that the levels of PFAS must be sufficiently low not to pose an increased or unacceptable risk to any receptors or environmental values. A decision tree is provided that outlines a step-by-step process to evaluate the suitability of soils for unrestricted reuse. The decision tree indicates that soil leachate concentrations must be below the freshwater 99 percent species protection levels, which are currently extremely low values and may mean reuse is not feasible in many situations.
  • Initial guidance on the management of PFAS in wastewater, including trade waste, which is to be further developed in consultation with the water industry. The draft NEMP 2.0 does not provide criteria for wastewater, as these are set by individual utility providers. It provides a framework for water utilities to manage PFAS in wastewater inputs, processing, and outputs (such as recycled water, use of biosolids and other waste-disposal pathways). This is a work in progress, with NCWG continuing to work with the wastewater sector on issues including trade waste, biosolids, recycled water and effluent to further develop guidance and establish criteria.
  • New guidance is provided for temporary and longer-term, on-site storage and containment of PFAS-containing products and materials, with information that can be used to inform construction-management plans. This expands on the information provided in NEMP 1.0, based on operational experience on major projects.

Publication of the final NEMP 2.0 is likely to be in early 2020 and a comprehensive review of the PFAS NEMP will be undertaken in 2023. Given the rapid evolution of PFAS knowledge that is occurring, it is expected that many significant advances in the understanding of PFAS risks, behaviour in the environment and treatment could occur during this time. Further work beyond NEMP 2.0 has already started in areas such as understanding and managing the PFAS chemical family, environmental monitoring, water, soil, resource recovery, waste management, and detailed advice on the application of the PFAS NEMP guidance.

As with many aspects related to PFAS, it is very much a matter of ‘watch this space’, as the knowledge continues to evolve rapidly both in Australia and internationally.