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Estimates: Environment & Communications Legislation Committee (Townsville RAAF contamination)

Lee questions the secretary of the Department of the Environment, Dr de Brouwer, and the chair of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Dr Reichelt, on the possibility of environmental damage arising from runoff of firefighting foam from the Townsville RAAF base.

CHAIR: Thank you for your patience, Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. Today, it was reported on the ABC that Colin Trinder, a former director of environmental impact management, Australian Defence Force, stated, 'It is highly likely toxic firefighting foam has run off from Townsville Air Force base and onto the Great Barrier Reef.' Is this something that you are aware of? Could you comment on your knowledge of this, please.

Dr Reichelt: Sorry, Senator. I am not aware of an incident like that in the Townsville port. I can take on notice and correct that, but my understanding is: 'No, we are not aware of it.' That is all I can say on that.

Senator RHIANNON: So if you could take it on notice. Could I just understand some of the process? Mr Trinder is a former director. So, I guess, there is a current director of environmental impact management for the ADF. Do you interact with these people? Do you have meetings with them about any possible impacts on ADF activities on the Great Barrier Reef?

Dr Reichelt: We do, typically around their major Defence exercises-not in the Townsville area but in Shoalwater Bay, and Talisman Sabre. We have a very close relationship in terms of risk assessments of their activities. If the spill was in Townsville air base, that, essentially, is connected to the Reesville wetland system, and we would look to the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection regulators to keep us informed of any potential risk to the reef. I am not aware of any discussions by our agency with the Air Force, the ADF, in relation to the operation of actual airfields.

Dr de Brouwer: The department engages very closely with the Defence department around these matters. If you want to come back to that tonight in 1.6, we do that on those issues.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes. I would appreciate coming back to it, but, still, to understand the process a little more, I think it was just stated that you will be relying on advice from the Queensland government and from their environment departments.

Dr Reichelt: It could be either the Queensland government or the department, as the secretary has just outlined-

Senator RHIANNON: Or the ADF.

Dr Reichelt: if it triggered national acts or things that the department-

Dr de Brouwer: It is Commonwealth land. As it is Commonwealth land, then, obviously, the Commonwealth is involved. That is how we work with Defence.

Senator RHIANNON: I noticed that, in your opening statement, you talked about your increasing monitoring and the Great Barrier Reef-they were the words I wrote down-and later there was talk about your extensive work to improve water quality. Again, I am really just trying to understand how it would work. Partly why I am asking this question is that toxic chemicals from the firefighting foam have now been detected on the border off Williamtown, and we have just had an inquiry into it. And now it has come up about Townsville as well. You have made statements about your increased monitoring of the Great Barrier Reef. You have this huge area and there are all sorts of things going on on the land. Do you do spot checks to monitor the quality of the water? How do you manage something like this? Do you rely on the state department-that is, it is Commonwealth land and therefore it is up to the Department of Defence to tell you? Are you proactive or are you waiting for that information to come to you?

Dr Reichelt : Our responsibility is, of course, for the marine park. Our regulatory powers are for that area. Our risk assessments look at everything we can think of, including things that are happening outside the marine park but near-like water quality running off from the land to the sea and the impacts of climate change. There are many other potential risks, and they are documented in our Outlook report.
We are careful not to overreach and duplicate regulatory and policy functions that are happening outside but near. We do that through partnerships. We have a very close working relationship with the Commonwealth department and with the state departments-there are a number of them. We are very active in marine monitoring. I was referring to monitoring of the health of the marine system when I was speaking to the first point. We are well supported through the Reef Program and National Landcare to conduct marine monitoring. That is done regularly and that informs the Reef Report Card-a joint product of the two governments. So there are number of ways that we get involved. But the one you are drawing attention is primarily land based, and there are other jurisdictions that are better equipped to handle that. We would use their reports and risk assessments when we put together the global picture.

Senator RHIANNON: The ABC reported a former director in this important position. I acknowledge that it is Commonwealth land, but would you move to initiate or ask for reports on the water quality around that base? What will you now do, now that you have been alerted to this and it is now in the public domain?

Dr Reichelt : I would contact the experts in both the state and the Commonwealth and establish what is known already about the issue.

Senator RHIANNON: Which experts?

Dr Reichelt : The Commonwealth department-the secretary is here-and their experts and officials and their network of engagement throughout the Commonwealth. In Queensland it would be through the Queensland Premiers Department and the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. It could go as far as the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service or even their transport department. We have good links with all those organisations.

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