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Speech: Report on toxic contamination at RAAF Base Williamtown

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (16:12): I rise to speak on the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee report on contamination caused by firefighting foams at RAAF Base Williamtown and Australian Defence Force facilities. On behalf of the Greens, I moved for this inquiry and was pleased to get the support of the Senate. We moved to do that because of the rising concerns of residents at Williamtown, and many other people as well, that the Department of Defence was not being responsible in how it was responding. When you look at the time line on the disclosure, and as knowledge has started to come in about these chemicals, it certainly reinforces and explains why that concern has been so considerable.

Residents' concerns about contamination on and around Williamtown base were one of the reasons why this inquiry was held-and also the department's lack of transparency about the issue. When we held the inquiry in Newcastle and heard from not just local residents but also the Department of Defence, and about the quite terse relationship with various New South Wales departments, it became apparent that the way this issue has been handled is not only very serious but also ongoing and problematic. The Department of Defence is not managing and not responding adequately in terms of the seriousness of this matter.

You have heard from other members about the chemicals that are involved here, which are known as PFOS and PFOA. Historically they have been associated with firefighting and used extensively in training, as we have heard. One of the most disturbing stories I heard was that years ago the children of some of the staff at the base enjoyed playing in the foam because it is slippery to slide on. We heard a number of personal stories, particularly from residents in the red zone, which is the area marked out for particularly high levels of contamination. I have only received limited information from the workers on the base, but I think that is an issue that also needs to be further explored.

I was concerned about some of the comments from Senator Back. He came across as trying to excuse the way the Department of Defence has handled this matter. Mistakes are made. Right now the department needs to be much more transparent in how it responds to the community because that is where there has been major failure to date. I was quite surprised to hear those attempts from the senator to make out that these chemicals are pretty run-of-the-mill.

I have a few more comments about the chemicals because I think it is important to spell out the health and environmental impacts. PFOS and PFOA are chemically biologically stable. The significance of that, when you look at food chains, is that they can biomagnify-that is, they can accumulate in organisms and move through food chains as one animal eats another. They can therefore well and truly accumulate in human beings. If they get to the top of the food chain then those chemicals become a part of the food chain and do not break down.

The history of these chemicals and our knowledge about their effects, I would argue, shows that the Department of Defence has not responded adequately to this contamination issue. Looking at the time line of the knowledge that has come out about these chemicals over the last decade also reflects poorly on how the department has handled it. Australian government departments, we understand, have known about the toxic effect of these chemicals since 2003 yet it was not until 2007 that Defence included monitoring of PFOS and PFOA in its own environmental testing. The Defence department had been aware of the dangers of the firefighting chemicals for many years but the residents of Williamtown were not informed until September 2015. I find that really unbelievable. Really these people should be given an apology.

I think there is a role here for Minister Payne. I appreciate that she negotiated with us about the terms of reference for this inquiry and for the follow-up inquiry which is looking at the issue across the country. But Minister Payne, as the responsible minister, surely should apologise to the people of Williamtown, who have gone through so much stress and so much hardship which continues to this day. We have finished this part of the inquiry and brought down the recommendations but the recommendations should not sit there month after month. The government needs to respond quickly. These recommendations are a good start to bringing some certainty, a way to assist the residents to manage their lives and to respond to what is very troubling.

It is troubling because health studies have shown impacts of the chemicals on blood cholesterol levels, thyroid function and liver size. Again, this is why we are so surprised and concerned at Senator Back's comments. In 2006, the Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee of the Stockholm Convention concluded:

PFOS is likely, as a result of its long-range environmental transport, to lead to significant adverse human health and environmental effects such that global action is warranted.
That very clear requirement came from the committee that sits under the Stockholm Convention back in 2006.

Then come forward to the crisis facing the Williamtown people today. That information broke in September and the Department of Defence informed the people but would not give them blood tests. The locals requested them time and time again. Our inquiry has made a recommendation for blood tests. Surely that should be put in place quickly. I would urge Senator Back to get behind this recommendation. If he so confident about these chemicals, why not have the blood tests? The mental health issues for these people are real. When I speak about this issue now, I think of the day we sat in Newcastle town hall listening to the evidence. The stress and the upset of so many people were very real. They live with that today. A member of the Williamtown and surrounds residents' action group said people are scared, and you could see that. I saw that on the day we took evidence and I have seen it when I visited Williamtown on a number of occasions.

The concern also comes from the property values of the residents' places. Some people have been told that there is now no value and they cannot sell their place because who wants to buy a house and land in a contaminated area? Even if the land may not be contaminated or the water may not be contaminated, if they are in the red zone or near the red zone then there is a perception of a serious problem. I met a cattle farmer when I was up there last. He had a beautiful farm. I did not get to visit his farm but I saw the photographs and spent the afternoon with him at the bowling club. He just wants to sell out. He was hoping his sons would take over the farm, that they would be proud beef cattle farmers but now he cannot run his cattle farm in a profitable way and nobody wants to buy it. The Department of Defence should be working out with him and others now what their future is. These people feel they have no future and the stress is unacceptable.

The water issue is obviously a huge one. The Department of Defence has been supplying free drinking water to about 38 households. There are concerns that the contamination could put at risk the Newcastle city water supply. This is a huge Australian city and here we have a risk to the water supply for the city. This is extraordinary. This is big news in the Hunter and in Newcastle. I congratulate the Newcastle Herald because it has really pushed this story out there, has worked with the residents and has reported on these difficulties.

Then there is the reputation of the area in terms of the fishing and the prawns. This was one of the most moving parts of the inquiry on the day we were there. The Port Stephens broader reputation as an area for clean seafood production is at risk. So what did the prawners and fishers do? They took a very responsible decision and said they would suspend their operations because they did not want their brand tarnished. Meanwhile so many of the locals in that area have been told not to eat their eggs, not to eat their vegetables if bore water has been put on them, not to eat their chicken and beef. Mr Back might question the New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority for doing that but there is a precautionary principle, which is a very important part of how governments should work. I find it very disturbing that that is questioned by a senator here in the government. The New South Wales Farmers' Federation has also noted the impact of the long-term brand damage on the region.

The Greens have also added a number of recommendations to this inquiry about issues to do with compensation and voluntary acquisition of the land. Defence needs to take immediate steps on the contamination in Lake Cochrane. Right now the contamination continues to pour out of the RAAF base. One of the things that has shocked me is how little has been done to stop that and to deal with that. There is a lot more that needs to be investigated there. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.

 

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