Investigating firefighting foams

In April 2019, we released the findings of our national investigation into firefighting foams containing the banned chemical, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), a persistent organic pollutant (POP).

POPs are stable compounds that do not readily break down through chemical or biological processes. They persist for a long time with consequent damage to the environment and to human health.

An investigation of this size was a first for the EPA, having acquired new enforcement powers following changes to the HSNO Act. These had come into effect on 1 December 2017, just 19 days before we announced this investigation. Before this date we did not have these powers and were unable to take any enforcement action on non-compliance.

Our investigation was launched after the New Zealand Defence Force discovered soil and water contamination at the Ohakea and Woodbourne airbases in late 2017. The source of the contamination was thought to be a specialist type of PFOS-containing firefighting foam. The foam may have been deployed during emergencies and training exercises at these airbases.

Our aim was to find out whether firefighting foams containing PFOS had been imported, manufactured, used, stored, or disposed of in New Zealand following their initial restriction in 2006 and outlawing in 2011.

We adopted a risk-based approach to the investigation, identifying and prioritising at-risk sites from sector groups across New Zealand.

Our investigators visited or contacted 166 sites, including 34 commercial airports, 108 sites likely to store large volumes of hydrocarbon fuels (ports, refineries and bulk fuel storage, and petrochemical sites), and 24 ships. Stocks of foam containing PFOS were uncovered at several sites, as well as other foam stocks that had been contaminated with PFOS.

All non-compliant foam was removed and disposed of in an approved and safe way, so that it can never be used again. Facilities or equipment in contact with the foam were decontaminated and clean-up materials disposed of appropriately.

No intentional non-compliance was discovered. Our investigators worked with all parties to ensure that materials were decommissioned and stored appropriately and securely, pending their safe disposal.