Three Queensland property owners have been left feeling “devastated” and in limbo after traces of fuel and PFAS contaminants were found on their properties.

The five blocks belonging to the three owners border an Ampol-owned Caltex fuel depot in Bundaberg.

Anita Penny bought her property in the city’s east in 1998, but 23 years on it is now contaminated and losing value.

She said she cannot sell or rent out the Collins Street property and is unable to grow and eat fruit or vegetables from her garden.

“To be told that the house you have been paying off for 20 years is now completely worthless was absolutely devastating,” Ms Penny said.

“We are paying a mortgage on a house that is useless. We are unable to sell it or rent it on the open market because it is contaminated.”

A danger sign hanging on a high wire fence reads flammable liquid in front of a petrol truck.
Ampol says PFAS has been found beneath its Bundaberg depot, in roadside wells and on one residential property.(ABC Wide Bay: Nicole Hegarty)

Contamination dates back to 1990s

Ampol notified the Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES) of the presence of hydrocarbon contamination at its Bundaberg depot in December 2013.

An Ampol spokesman said testing of roadside wells in 2014 and 2015 also revealed contaminants, while traces of hydrocarbons were found in groundwater and soil at five properties neighbouring the site in 2017 and 2018.

“Comprehensive and ongoing testing and monitoring to date has shown this contamination in its current site does not present a risk to human health,” he said.

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl PFAS, often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ due to their resistance to breaking down, was found in quantities above the adopted human health guidelines beneath the depot, in roadside reserve wells, and on the property furthest away from the depot.

Levels below the adopted guidelines for human health were detected at some of the remaining properties.

Ms Penny and the other residents approached by the ABC said they were first advised of the contamination at the depot by a letter in October 2016.

The two other property owners did not want to talk publicly about their circumstances.

Ms Penny said she was told there were two types of leaks.

“One was historic dating back to the 90s [prior to Ampol taking ownership] and then a second lot dated back to about four years ago,” she said.

The two-storey Caltex depot building in Bundaberg east.
Ampol says the contamination does not present a risk to human health.(ABC Wide Bay: Nicole Hegarty)

Monitoring wells have since been installed on each site in compliance with a Clean-Up Notice from the DES.

“Whenever they are doing testing they have to come into the yard and it usually takes a couple of hours. They also have to block off the road to traffic to test all the monitoring wells on the road and on the side of the road,” Ms Penny said.

“It’s generally every six months.”

The Clean-Up Notice, issued in June 2020, required Ampol to implement a groundwater monitoring program to monitor changes in the concentrations of contaminants in soil and groundwater.

House dreams down the drain

Ms Penny bought the property in an industrial-residential area of the city’s east with her father as it allowed him to continue his engineering business.

“The reason Dad and I got it together was so that I could use it as collateral to purchase my own house down the track,” she said.

Instead, she has had to list her other property she calls home, purchased with her husband, on the market.

“We’re actually having to sell our house and move back here to this contaminated property because we can’t continue to maintain two mortgages especially for another three to five years,” she said.

“Something that’s not our fault is causing us to lose a house that we worked really hard to get.”

Monitoring wells in the foreground with a house in the background.
Groundwater and soil-monitoring are installed around the properties.(ABC Wide Bay: Nicole Hegarty)

‘Sit in garden, but don’t grow vegetables’

RMIT’s Associate Dean of Biosciences Professor Oliver Jones said small amounts of petrol would cause limited human harm but long-term exposure could be more serious.

“Unless you’ve got a large amount for a long period of time, it’s probably not something to be immediately concerned about,” Professor Jones said.

“Groundwater is probably not so much of a problem unless you are using it as a drinking water source or putting it on the garden.

“If you were exposed every day for five, 10 years then you might start to be a little more concerned.

“With the soil, it would depend on how much is there and what depth it is at and what you were doing with the soil.

“So if you were just going to sit in your garden each day that’s different to if you were growing vegetables and then eating them.”

A man wearing a blue sports jacket sits looking at the camera from behind a laptop.
Professor Oliver Jones says little is known about the risks of low-level PFAS exposure.(ABC News: Billy Draper)

Professor Jones said only limited research existed on the effects of lower-level PFAS exposure.

“With hydrocarbons, wherever you store oil underground there is always the potential that you might get a leakage but generally it’s pretty well known what the risks are where it might be,” he said.

“PFAS is only an emerging contaminant.

“If it’s shown that these levels in the area in question are over the regulated levels and maybe there is a potential risk then I think people should be looking to either remediate or address the issue.”

The DES said it was continuing to assess contamination at surrounding properties.

The residential properties have not been listed on the Environmental Management Register (EMR), which publicly lists contaminated or potentially contaminated land.

Ms Penny approached Ampol with an offer to purchase her property in 2019 and again in 2020.

An Ampol spokesman said the company would not proceed with that option but would consider compensation.

“While contamination presents no health risks, we acknowledge the issues created and the potential disruption from ongoing remediation works,” he said.

In the meantime, Ms Penny said the wait continued.

“We just have to wait for Caltex to take action and move back to this contaminated property,” she said.

Ms Penny said she was exploring her legal options with a lawyer.

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