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Estimates: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee (Williamtown contamination)

Lee pursues the issue of the toxic contamination at the RAAF base in Williamtown, NSW with the Defence Minister, Senator Payne and Mr Grzeskowiak, Deputy Secretary, Estate and Infrastructure.

CHAIR: Senator Gallacher, could I ask you to pause for a minute and we will go to Senator Rhiannon. We will come back to you as needed.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, on my first visit to Williamtown-because we had discussed this matter at the last estimates-we were discussing with the residents and they were asking me what we could do as senators.  One of the issues that came up was a possible inquiry. One of the residents said, 'Why do we need an inquiry? Defence have said they're responsible for the contamination. There's been no question about that all the way along.' They were already finding that, in the red zone, their houses were worthless, as you have heard. I know that you know they have been told that they cannot drink the water or eat some of their produce. Defence told the residents on 15 September last year, and Defence have known for years. It really is coming across that you are now using the inquiry to stall further rather than sort this point out. The department must be working on how to manage it.

Senator Payne: Of course they are, and you have heard evidence-

Senator RHIANNON: But everything you have now said hangs around the inquiry. You have really narrowed it down to that context rather than being proactive. What came through when we sat together in the Newcastle town hall is that the Defence department has not been proactive with residents in terms of the all-important issues: their compensation for loss of livelihood and possible buy-ups of their properties-proactively growing to those people. The question is: what are you actually doing to fast-track this? You are not even giving us a date of when you are going to respond to the inquiry. The inquiry is becoming a cover if you do not become proactive.

Senator Payne: The Senate took a decision to hold an inquiry. You and Senator Conroy, as I recall, initiated that inquiry-if I recall correctly. You have put a set of recommendations to government, and it is axiomatic that you require a response from government. That is the process that is underway. I do not intend for a moment to indicate to you-and, if I have, then it was certainly not intentional-that there is not significantly more work and focus being done other than that which pertains to the inquiry. I said in my earlier responses to Senator Gallacher's questions that, very shortly after I took on this role, I asked the New South Wales government-its experts, its minister-to come and sit in a room with me and go through this in some great detail so that I could understand what the New South Wales government had done and we could work more closely and more effectively as a result of their actions to address the concerns of residents and to address the challenges that this problem presents. I will ask the deputy secretary, Mr Grzeskowiak, again to go through the processes that it takes to actually have the sort of testing done that the New South Wales government and we are undertaking. There is not a limitless supply-for example, there is not a limitless supply of laboratories. There are certain standards which are required or imposed by regulations at both the state and the Commonwealth level for us to meet in that process. We are doing that. We have external contracts let, as the deputy secretary has indicated, for the purpose of doing more and doing that as quickly as we possibly can, but there are physical limitations and, frankly, human limitations, to how much of that can be done. We are responding, we are very focused on that and we are absolutely acknowledging the concerns and the issues that are being faced by the people in this particular area.

Senator RHIANNON: Coming back to the people's lives, you are saying you are acknowledging, but there is a contamination. It is useful that you have explained that. We know the perception is so much in lives, and now there is a wide perception that the red zone is very contaminated and people cannot sell the properties. I met a cattle farmer with beautiful Angus cattle and he now cannot sell his property. People are feeling stranded and they are incredibly stressed. Can you answer what you are actually doing about starting to negotiate with people about buying them out and compensation for their lost livelihood? Some of those fishers cannot go to even the next lake and fish. Their expertise is there. Many of them are elderly. What are you actively doing to assist those people now with their loss of livelihood and loss of property value? It is not about contamination; it is about dealing with the human beings who are suffering because of the inadequate way the Department of Defence has handled this.

Senator Payne: Senator, I have tried to explain and I have tried to indicate, and I would ask the officers if they want to add anything to this. The government has an obligation to deal with this in the most appropriate way we can. We obviously are dealing with taxpayers' money. This is not just an issue for the Defence department; it is an issue across government. So whatever decisions Defence is required to make in this process have greater implications for government. You understand that.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand, but have you even started these? Why aren't you talking to the people so we can start getting an idea of what the parameters are? Don't you need to talk to them as well?

Senator Payne: I will ask Steve to say some more-but do you also recognise and understand that we are dealing with the decision-making processes of the state government as well, over which we have no control? They make their own decisions and they impact on the individuals concerned as well. So we are working with them too. I will ask the deputy secretary to go further into that, but I have said to Senator Gallacher and I will repeat to you: this is not in any way minimising the impact of the concerns of the people in the Williamtown area, or the Oakey area for that matter. Frankly, as we go further around the country in relation to the relevant Defence facilities, airfields and rural firefighting locations where these foams have been used, we see that this is a larger problem, not just in Australia but internationally. I am sure you are aware of that. I will ask the deputy secretary to add to that answer, please.

Mr Grzeskowiak: We are as engaged as we can be with the local community and we are always trying to be more engaged. We have attended every meeting of the community reference group, which is a roughly weekly meeting, since back in September last year. We have Air Vice Marshal Greg Evans full time on the ground, talking to members of the community daily, including receiving calls late at night on his mobile phone. He will take a call any time. We are engaged with the elected representatives group, which has been meeting weekly, and we are at every one of those meetings. I have been involved in one of those meetings. I have given evidence in both of the hearings. I was at Williamtown, as you know, giving evidence in the hearing just before Christmas. I attended the whole day. I listened to the community. I and Defence are well aware of the concern that exists in the community. We are well aware that people are concerned about any health effects. Some people are concerned about property values. People are concerned about their business, the fishing bans and how long they are going to last. It is precisely because of those concerns and precisely because of the angst that we have to take a scientifically valid process as we go through this, and that is what we are doing. We are in contract now, doing the research to try and understand the breadth of this contamination. If I might just offer a statistic which is interesting, one of the priorities is clean drinking water for people. That has been our first priority, and so we have sampled a lot of people's bores, a lot of swimming pools and a lot of rainwater tanks-204 bores, 150 rainwater tanks and 20 swimming pools. We do not have all of the results back yet, but here are the results so far: 139 nil detects-that means no PFOS or PFOA detected-and 27 detects. So already when we see those results we are starting to learn that within the precautionary zone of investigation that was declared by the New South Wales EPA the chemical that we are talking about is not widespread everywhere. It is in certain locations. So for those people where we have detected it we are providing free water. We have been doing that since last year. That is the key thing. The two pathways for human ingestion are through contaminated water and contaminated food-most likely fish in this case. There is a great degree of uncertainty around what effect these chemicals actually have on humans. The scientific community has not reached a consensus and does not look like reaching a consensus on the matter for a long time. That is the reality. I absolutely understand that the community are worried and concerned, and we are doing everything we can to try and understand this problem and work with the New South Wales authorities so they can make relevant decisions about the fishing ban in particular.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you speak about the actual contamination on the base? There was very little evidence, from what I recollect, about where that contamination is and any efforts to contain it or remove it.

Mr Grzeskowiak: Part of our ongoing investigation is further investigation on the base to understand the contamination. The sites where the main contamination would have been put into the ground are the old firefighting training sites, which is what you would expect from the use of firefighting foam. We have to remember that this contamination is a legacy issue. We have not been using these foams for quite a long time now. So there are about two or three sites on the base, around where the old firefighting training areas were, where the contamination would have been put into the ground. Then you will be aware of the so-called Lake Cochran-

Senator RHIANNON: Sorry, but I just want to deal with the base at the moment.

Mr Grzeskowiak: Lake Cochran is on the base. It is on the Newcastle airport side of the base. Lake Cochran is a man-made lake. It is part of the stormwater drainage design for the whole airport and base. Because it is part of the design, water flowing across the base finds its way through various channels and drains into Lake Cochran. So Lake Cochran is an area where we know there is contamination, in the substrate of the lake, and that can leach into the water. That is where we discovered contamination leaving the base-if I am correct, into Moors Drain.

Senator RHIANNON: Have you actually looked at containing it? Lake Cochran is not the main source, from what I understand. You have identified where the firefighting exercises were undertaken as the source of the contamination. Have studies been done on containing or removing that contamination from that point?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We are looking at that now, in terms of firstly how we could remediate the areas where the firefighting foams were put into the ground, and what the options are. I cannot talk about containing the water on the base, because that is just not possible, but we are looking at options around cleaning up areas like Lake Cochran or putting in place some process that ensures that run-off that comes out of the lake into the drain has been filtered-I used the word 'filtered', but that is probably the wrong technical word-or treated as it runs off. We are talking with several companies at the moment who are showing us the options they have. Our experience, though, has been that the majority of the techniques that we are aware of-and there are a range of them-work with relatively low volumes of water, if we are talking about water in the first instance. So scaling them up to cope with large volumes is the challenge. We are actively pursuing that at the moment. If we can get something in place, even if it is a technology that is not proven at scale but we can use this area as a way of proving it, then we are going to do that.

Senator RHIANNON: What impact is dealing with this contamination having on what I understand is about a $1.5 billion upgrade of Williamtown for the Joint Strike Fighters? I am interested in understanding both the location and the timing of getting this upgrade in place.

Mr Grzeskowiak: We gave a bit of evidence in the Senate hearing before Christmas on this, but I can reiterate some of that. You are referring to the new air combat capability project, and one of the main sites for that development work is RAAF Base Williamtown. We have strict environmental controls associated with that project and we have an environmental consultancy contracted in to ensure we follow those controls. Where we are doing earthworks for the Joint Strike Fighter project at Williamtown generally is not where the higher levels of contamination are found-for example, the old firefighting training areas.

Senator RHIANNON: You have said 'higher'. That means there is some contamination where you are doing the Joint Strike Fighter upgrade.

Mr Grzeskowiak: As we excavate soil we test it, and what we are finding is that we are discovering some levels of PFOS or PFOA, but they are very low. In fact, they are well below the screening levels that we have adopted based on US standards that exist. You would be aware that there are no standards in Australia for the amount of this chemical that can or cannot be allowed in soil or water. We are doing testing and we are finding either nil detects or detects at very low levels-well below the screening levels we have adopted from international standards that do exist.

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Senator Payne: I have indicated that I will be responding on behalf of the government to the report. I understand, notwithstanding the inquiry was set up with the Senate, Senator Rhiannon does not want that to be the framework within which we are discussing this. But it is now, in large, part the framework.

Senator RHIANNON: It is not constructive to frame it like that.

Senator Payne: Senator Rhiannon, I am sorry but you indicated to me that you thought that I was too focused on aspects of the report so I was trying to say: notwithstanding the aspects of the report and its recommendations, there is work ongoing in Defence, as Mr Grzeskowiak has indicated, in relation to addressing the concerns and the impact on the individuals of the community and on the residents, and we are working very hard to do that.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, you have the call to put questions on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you provide the committee with a map showing the area of contamination, current structures and the planned infrastructure and structures. Could you provide that please?

Mr Grzeskowiak: Just to clarify, that is on the base around the-

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, just the base.

Mr Grzeskowiak: We will provide that.

Senator RHIANNON: You said there are 16 sites where you have identified similar problems. Could you give the location of those on notice please?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We will take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Hopefully you can give a quick answer to my final question. Have you tested current staff and former staff for if they have this chemical thing?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We have not tested specifically for these chemicals in any current or former staff. As we discussed at the Senate hearing before Christmas, there was a firefighter study focusing on ADF firefighters conducted by Air Force over the last few years. We talked about the results of that study in the Senate inquiry.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you take on notice what support you are giving to your current staff over this issue, because they would be obviously reading the report and becoming worried about it. What are you doing for your staff in terms of counselling or health tests?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We are briefing staff through our base management teams to try and explain to them this issue. We are explaining to them that there is an incredibly low risk of any exposure to people, particularly on the base. The base runs off town water, which we know is not contaminated. There is a scheme in Defence, an exposure evaluation scheme. People can register with that scheme if they have a concern and then they can have a chat with the doctor. So all those mechanisms are in place and in play at the moment.

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 Senator RHIANNON: On 23 December last year, Mr Speakman, the environment minister of New South Wales, said in reference to this issue that the New South Wales government was purchasing a new liquid chromatography mass spectrometer to speed up testing of soil, water, biota and milk. Are the Department of Defence and the New South Wales government cooperating on testing? Are they sharing results? Are they doing the same testing or are they using different methodologies?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We are maintaining close cooperation between Defence and New South Wales is on this. In fact, last week I was speaking to the CEO of the New South Wales EPA on the issue of the new mass spectrometer-I will just call it that, although its name is actually much more complex-the New South Wales government is buying. The intent is to increase the New South Wales capacity, and hence national capacity, to be able to undertake tests of water samples. As the minister of alluded to earlier this morning, there is a very limited laboratory capacity at the moment. In terms of the testing of soil and water, there are two nationally accredited laboratories in Australia that we are aware of, and there is another laboratory we can use for biota. There are other laboratories that can do this testing, but they are not nationally accredited. Our policy throughout this process has been to use only nationally accredited process, nationally accredited facilities, to ensure that when we do receive results we can have confidence in the results.

Senator RHIANNON: Has the Department of Defence considered requesting that the federal government purchase this equipment, in the way that the New South Wales government has, because it sounds like there is now a blockage in getting the results through?

Mr Grzeskowiak: I could not say that there is a blockage at the moment. It takes us three or four weeks to get a test sample turnaround through the process. The position of the Department of Defence certainly is that-we do not explain this to New South Wales-we do not want to own test equipment, because test equipment should be operated by those people who are properly qualified to operate it. I am not sure how the New South Wales government is going to bring into operation the equipment they are buying-I just do not know. But I have suggested that were there to be another facility that was nationally accredited we of course would be delighted to use it. The second part of your question was on sharing results. We have made available to the New South Wales authorities all of the results of testing that we have had undertaken. That commenced with the stage 2 report that we handed to them in September last year, which was the finally verified report that demonstrated we had definitely found contaminants off the edge of the base, and where they were. We intend fully to continue to make our results available to the New South Wales authorities as we gather results. We have had an offer recently from the New South Wales government entities that they will share with us their results from their testing of, particularly, fish samples from Fullerton Cove. We are just in the process of acquiring those results, and we will use those results to inform our human health risk assessment. It makes sense that we use those results that the New South Wales authorities have offered.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, it was said in an earlier session that there could be 16 sites that are being investigated. Have you made any requests as to whether there needs to be more equipment and more ability at the federal level to be able to undertake this testing, or will it be relying on New South Wales?

Senator Payne: Not all of the sites are in New South Wales. The sites are in other locations as well. As I think we indicated earlier, the department is engaging with external contractors to assist in the facilitation of the testing process for those sites. I therefore have not made a request for particular equipment in that regard. But if the department were to come to me and indicate that there were ways of that nature in which we could facilitate the process, of course I would consider them.

Senator RHIANNON: From what you have explained, we now know that the investigation into these chemical contaminants is nationwide, and we have heard the report again about the 16 different Defence sites. This morning you took on notice my question about what those sites are. Are all 16 sites RAAF basis?

Senator Payne: No.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you give us a breakdown now of which are and which are not?

Mr Richardson: No.

Senator Payne: We have taken it on notice. We can provide you with a much more complete answer in that way.

Senator RHIANNON: You said that you would be looking into it. Can you explain what 'looking into it' means? Does it mean conducting tests? Does it mean speaking to staff and local people?

Senator Payne: I will ask the deputy secretary to expand on that.

Mr Grzeskowiak: Our plan for the next series of investigations is to start taking samples at the very sites that will be identified-essentially going outside the base and taking samples of surface water, soil and bores, where they exist, to get a quick read on whether or not there are any of the PFOS or PFOA chemicals leaving the site.

Senator RHIANNON: Have any developments or redevelopments on any of these sites, or at least the sites that are under the Department of Defence, been put on hold due to this ongoing investigation?

Mr Grzeskowiak: No.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering that it came out in the Williamtown inquiry that sometimes contaminants were found on the base where it was not expected, and considering developments and building infrastructure could occur in places where there were contaminants that had not been located, is it being considered that maybe one should be cautious in going ahead with developments before this contamination is understood?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We are always alive to environmental contamination for any developments we do on Defence premises. We have environmental consultancies engaged for all works and we obviously follow the recommendations they might make. At Williamtown we are being very careful in terms of understanding whether or not there is any contamination in soils that we might be disturbing, and taking appropriate measures under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to make sure that we do not do anything that will see the further escaping of any contaminants. That applies to all types of contaminants.

Senator RHIANNON: From that, I take it that before any new infrastructure, new road, or new building is put in place you would be looking at the soil, the substrata, in terms of contamination potential?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We always do environmental assessments and environmental impact statements for the work we do.

Senator RHIANNON: That did not actually answer the question. When you say 'environmental impact statements', are you including looking for contaminants in that?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We would, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Going back to Williamtown, if the New South Wales government is bringing in its new equipment, who will pay for that? Will it be the New South Wales government?

Mr Grzeskowiak: My understanding is that the New South Wales government has taken a decision to buy a piece of equipment that they will pay for to bolster their own capacity to be able to make these sorts of tests. As was said earlier this morning, the potential contamination from the use of PFOS and PFOA firefighting foams and other products goes way beyond military airfields. The New South Wales government is looking to increase its own capacity to make tests in the future.

Senator RHIANNON: You have just explained that environmental impact statements are carried out, and we clarified that that includes testing for contaminants. But I understand that at Williamtown the groundwater and surface water testing was not included in the EIS for the Joint Strike Fighter development. Is that correct?

Mr Grzeskowiak: The issue raised earlier was that there was no specific mention of PFOS and PFOA in the evidence that was led before the PWC for the New Air Combat Capability Project, and that is the case. However, there would have been a description of the environmental measures that we take in conducting works on a military base. I am not able to go into the detail of what that would have been. I would have to take that away.

Senator RHIANNON: The language is starting to sound loose. You have now talked about environmental measures-these are the delights in how the English language is used. But I did ask specifically about contamination being included in these environmental studies.

Mr Grzeskowiak: Contamination of a range of sorts is what we look for when we are looking at the environment and any effect on the environment that may occur from works we have planned and undertaken. We are governed by the EPBC Act, and we must follow it in our approvals.

Senator RHIANNON: I think we still need some clarification on how this plays out, because there seems to be some inconsistency, maybe in what happened or maybe in the way you are phrasing it. Specifically, why was the Senate Public Works Committee, which was expected to approve the $274 million redevelopment, not told of the contamination? I understand it was only revealed two weeks later, after the approval was sought.

Mr Grzeskowiak: I do not have the right witness here to be able to explain that in detail. The confirmation of contamination in detail from phase 2 report probably was not available at that time. It came shortly afterwards. But there would have been a general conversation about what we were doing to do in environmental assessments as part of the new air combat capability works, which are at Williamtown and other bases. In fact, the cost of the works at Williamtown is closer to $750 million-of that order.

Senator RHIANNON: If I understood you correctly, you have just said that it was not available when this decision was being made, but clearly you knew that the study was being undertaken. Wouldn't the responsible thing have been to have told the Senate Public Works Committee that there was a study being undertaken that could have significant information, with regard to the situation at the base, that could have a bearing on the redevelopment and how that decision was being made? You say that it was not available in time, but surely you knew that it was coming down the line? Is that not the case?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We would have known there were investigations going on. As things have turned out we know now that in the areas in which we are doing works on the base we are finding either no PFOS or PFOA in the soil that is being excavated, or incredibly low values of them. So the measures that have been taken when we do find these very low levels-and they are orders of magnitude below the screening levels that have been set-is to quarantine those soils, and then we will have them taken away through a process approved by the New South Wales government. So there is almost no prospect that what we are doing on the base is promoting any further contamination.

Senator RHIANNON: But you have effectively acknowledged that the proper process was not followed-

Mr Grzeskowiak: I do not accept that the process was not followed. There would have been a discussion in the PWC-and I was not present and have not read the Hansard of that-about how we were meeting our obligations under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. I now am aware that PFOS and PFOA were not specifically mentioned. Clearly, if we were having the discussion now with the PWC it would be something that would be mentioned.

 

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