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Estimates: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee: Defence Portfolio: Department of Defence

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, have you hired additional media or public relations staff or consultants who cover that area to manage the contamination at Williamtown and the contamination issue generally at other bases?

Senator Payne: In my personal office?

Senator RHIANNON: Within the department. The question was to manage the contamination issues at Williamtown.

Senator Payne: I will ask the deputy secretary of the estate and infrastructure group to come to the table.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

Mr Grzeskowiak: The way we are managing public relations and the interactions we have with the community in the main is through our own people. We have a lot of community reference group meetings out at the various sites that we are engaged in. We do that ourselves. That is the main mechanism for our engagement. We do have some people back in the office who would be helping us with the messages we need to be getting across to people, as would other departments engaged in the process—for example, the Department of Health.

Senator RHIANNON: You used the term 'in the main'. Does that mean that you have hired PR, or public relations, staff or consultants to help in that area?

Mr Grzeskowiak: I would have to check. I would have to take that on notice in detail. We may have some people who have been helping us with messaging for that. It may be that other departments are doing that as well, but I would have to go and look in detail just to confirm.

Senator RHIANNON: So you can take that on notice?

Mr Grzeskowiak: I can.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I notice that the meetings held at your RAAF base at Richmond were stated in the Hawkesbury Gazette as one-on-one meetings with Defence. Could you describe what that means? I know some consultancy firms do this. They do not have a public meeting where everybody is together, but they take the residents and meet with them separately. Is that what you mean by one-to-one meetings?

Mr Grzeskowiak: I can speak from first-hand experience for that meeting. I was the Defence individual who led that meeting supported by a range of other organisations—for example, the local environmental protection agency, local health people and the like. So what we are doing when we engage in community is talk to them in smaller groups. So the way we will run the session is that we will hire the hall or something that is convenient. We will set up tables. There would be a table for Defence. There will be a table from our consultants who are doing environment investigation, if we have them in place. There might be a table from the local health authorities et cetera. People can come along and talk to the people at those tables about any issues on their mind. During the session—and they normally run for an afternoon—probably twice we will do presentations. We advertise the times of the presentations. When we do the presentation, it will be a Defence person giving a presentation. In the case of Hawkesbury, around RAAF base Richmond last year, what we were saying there was that we had done some preliminary sampling. We had those results. We are going to be back this year to run a more detailed investigation. So we are trying to engage the community in a way that enables people to come along and hear what we have to say and to sit down and talk one on one if they want to with somebody who is more closely associated with the field of interest that they might have, be it health or environment or whatever.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say presentation, at that point, did you get everybody together? It is being written about in the research how consultants are advising departments these days to not get the public all together when you have these challenging situations. Do you get everybody together at any stage?

Mr Grzeskowiak: Yes, we do. We did not have consultants and advisers at that. It is a strategy that we decided upon ourselves because we feel we get much more effective engagement. So we will advertise that we have a community drop-in session from whatever—two o'clock until six o'clock—and that there will be presentations at three o'clock and five o'clock, or whatever the times would be. As I said, I did the Richmond one. We did not have a large turnout from the community, but everyone that came had the opportunity to listen to a presentation and separately talking to either me or the various other organisations that we had present. What we found and what we have had in feedback from people as we have done a fair amount of this is that a lot of people are not confident in, if you like, a huge auditorium to put their hand up and ask a question. They feel much more confident to just approach someone who is behind a desk saying 'Health' or whatever. We get very good interaction at those meetings. So that is the process that we have adopted. It is a decision we made ourselves following the experience we have gained over this process.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I will go to question on notice No. 81. When I printed it out, it was page 3. At the third paragraph from the bottom, you make reference to a study. You state:

A second stage of the study is expected to include focus groups, a survey, and an epidemiological study related to PFAS exposure of residents in and around affected communities.

What is the point of the focus groups?

Mr Grzeskowiak: That will be in reference to the epidemiological study that was announced by government in June last year that will be taking place at Williamtown and Oakey. The Department of Health have the lead on the epidemiological study, although the work is being funded by Defence. The initial approach to the community at Williamtown and Oakey has occurred. Department of Health representatives have held community engagement sessions there to try to talk to people about the epidemiological study and how that will work. I think as part of that process the people doing the study from the Australian National University Centre for Epidemiology and Population Studies, who have the contract from health, were made to sit down and talk to people about their lifestyles, I guess. I am not an expert in epidemiological studies. So there will be significant engagement between the people doing the study and individuals who volunteer to take part in the study.

Senator RHIANNON: So the focus groups are part of the epidemiological study that is being conducted?

Mr Grzeskowiak: That would be right.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. This is the Department of Health, but you have probably been involved. I am referring here to the voluntary blood testing program. I was hoping that you could also explain this. What it states in the first paragraph is that it is being offered to people who live or work, or who have lived or worked, in Williamtown and Oakey. Why only those two areas?

Mr Grzeskowiak: It was a decision made at the time of the announcement that these were the areas we were heavily engaged with. So the current scope of blood testing is for Williamtown and Oakey areas. As you areaware, they are the areas in which we are the most advanced in terms of having concluded significant environmental studies, significant ecological studies and significant human health risk assessment studies. So that is the position at the moment. The blood tests are available, again, through the primary health care network.

Senator RHIANNON: But that becomes illogical at that point. Just because you have conducted most of the tests there does not mean that that is where you should be giving the free tests to people who have lived or worked there.

Mr Grzeskowiak: Our blood test is something that has evolved throughout this process. It was not something that was at the beginning of the process. So the Department of Health has the lead on the blood tests.

Senator RHIANNON: But it has only evolved because—let us be frank—the department has come under enormous pressure. At first there was a lot of resistance to doing it. Is it because Williamtown and Oakey have more active communities? At the moment, there is not a logical reason why you are only doing it for two communities and it is not happening in the other communities.

Senator Payne: If you recall—and you have obviously been part of the inquiry on these issues—there were community requests for blood testing in those areas. It is important to note that in both those areas exposure pathways have been established and identified by the testing process that Mr Grzeskowiak refers to, which is a part of the health evidentiary process. It is being run by the Department of Health, but of course if the government is approached by other communities who are concerned and who wish to explore that, then that would be considered from the Department of Health's perspective. It is not being administered by the Department of Defence.

Senator RHIANNON: But, even on that, the Department of Defence has admitted total liability here. You have never questioned that. That has been good, and we have thought we were getting somewhere at that point. You talk about exposure pathways, but how you have answered that question, Minister, is again putting the responsibility back on the local people to come forward to request. We have just heard evidence that often people are reluctant. They do not know about the chemicals. They are not sure. Some of them do not even know they are exposed. Should not the government, having admitted total responsibility, be proactive with these communities, at least providing them with the voluntary blood testing?

Senator Payne: Well, it is a matter for the Department of Health. If you want me to take that on notice to seek the advice of the health minister, I will.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Please take that on notice. I want to return to the Hawkesbury.

Senator Payne: To RAAF Richmond?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, sorry. To Richmond. It keeps coming up under Hawkesbury, where I have it filed. This is my first question: when did you first become aware that contamination was occurring at this base? What is your year for that first occurring?

Mr Grzeskowiak: As you are aware, we have been doing desktop studies for a while now looking at areas where historically the firefighting foams that we are talking about have been used. As you might expect, airfields is one of the obvious places—not only military airfields but of course civilian airfields and a range of other industrial sites across the country. So we were aware that these firefighting foams would have been used at Richmond. From the desktop analysis, it popped up as one of the places that we should do some further analysis at. So in the middle of last year, we ran a very quick sampling program at Richmond, I think between April and July. We got those results a few months later. That showed us that there were detections of PFAS chemicals outside of the base. We deliberately did the tests outside of the base because we were most interested to see and concerned to see where these chemicals may have moved off the base.

Senator RHIANNON: So the middle of last year is when your first testing occurred?

Mr Grzeskowiak: That is when the first testing occurred. The results came in a few weeks later. So that is why we went to the Hawkesbury, close to RAAF base Richmond, last year and had the community information session—to advise people of what we had found and to explain a little about what we know of the historical use of these chemicals globally, the current state of play in terms of health effects and that we would be back fairly early this year for an investigation. In fact, next week, on 8 March, I think, I will be back in the Hawkesbury at the next community information session talking about the investigations that are due to commence there very shortly.

Senator RHIANNON: I want to stay with this issue of the date. Are you aware that a submission to the Senate inquiry by former defence director of environmental impact management Colin Trinder said he had conducted the first review into problems with the firefighting foam in 2003? He said in 2002 he had receivedreports about fish kills where the foam had got into the waterways adjoining the Richmond and Amberley RAAF bases.

Mr Grzeskowiak: I am certainly aware of Colin Trinder and the submission that he made to the inquiry. As you would be aware, until some years ago, Colin Trinder was a member of the defence environmental group. So, yes, we are aware of that.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering the way you have just answered the question, when I asked you about a date and you said six months ago, are you saying that what Mr Trinder said is not true, or did you forget? Why the contradiction?

Mr Grzeskowiak: No. Until he made that submission to that inquiry, the information that he brought to bear at that point was not widely known by the people who are currently working with this problem. We have said all along that Defence started taking action on these chemicals of concern from around 2003. In 2004, decisions were made to move away from the legacy product, the 3M Light Water, and use a different product, which is called Ansulite. The transition occurred from 2004. As I have previously said in these forums, we knew these foams were used, but I do not think anybody really appreciated that the potential for the contaminants to spread outside of bases was as much as we have subsequently discovered.

Senator RHIANNON: We have to go back to the issue of dates. You really are starting to enter a grey area. I have asked you twice about the Trinder reference. Did you forget about that reference, or are you saying that it is not accurate? You said very clearly that the first testing was six months ago, which puts us in the middle of 2016.

Mr Grzeskowiak: The first testing we had done, certainly while I have been involved, was six months ago at Richmond. We deliberately tested off the base to see if the PFAS chemicals had moved off base. We found low levels of the chemical off the base. That is why we are moving into a more in-depth on and off base investigation.

Senator RHIANNON: You have just used the term 'while I have been involved'. That was not how I phrased the question. You have made a study of the whole thing. Again, this is a specific question about Trinder. Were you aware of the Trinder study? I understand you have said yes.

Mr Grzeskowiak: Yes. I am aware of it.

Senator RHIANNON: You have said yes. Do you accept the information in that submission, or are you disputing the accuracy of it?

Mr Grzeskowiak: No. I am not disputing the accuracy. I have given you my answer about the testing we have done at RAAF base Richmond and outside of RAAF base Richmond. I think the issue now is that we are moving forward with a more detailed investigation. We are engaging with the community again next week. We want to really understand at the various places where these chemicals were used if there are any issues and how we fix them.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Minister, will you be honouring the promise you made during the 2016 election campaign to visit the Williamtown community post the election?

Senator Payne: Yes. At some stage. I know that the department is heavily engaged. I might ask Mr Grzeskowiak to talk about some of the work that is being done in remediation in particular at Williamtown. You would know that we have installed—and it has been operating, I think, since September or October last year—a very significant water treatment plant on—

Senator RHIANNON: Lake Cochran.

Senator Payne: Lake Cochran.

Senator RHIANNON: I am happy if you take this on notice. I want to go back. I did ask you a specific question. It is eight months since the election, Minister. I really think, just for your own standing, surely you should give a commitment. It is more than eight months since you made that promise.

Senator Payne: Yes, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying you will go in six months, or are you going to keep it open-ended? It is not a good look.

Senator Payne: Currently I have spoken to, very briefly, Ms Swanson, the local member. I am happy to visit at an appropriate time.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. This is a quick question. The Williamtown community reference group meets in secret. Why does it have to meet in secret?

Senator Payne: I think it is a reference group conducted by the New South Wales state government, but I might be wrong.

Senator RHIANNON: So it has nothing to do with you?

Senator Payne: We attend by invitation. As I understand it, it is a—

Senator RHIANNON: So you have made no request for it to be in secret? You would be happy for it to be public?

Senator Payne: Of course not.

Senator RHIANNON: You would be happy for it to be public?

Senator Payne: Well, I am happy with whatever arrangements the New South Wales government think are appropriate. It is an organisation that they operate.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Rhiannon.

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