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Estimates: Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee: Prime Minister and Cabinet Portfolio: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 16 Mar 2018

Monday, 26 February 2018


Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Chair. I want to move to the contamination task force that was set up in the Prime Minister and Cabinet's office. I have some specific questions arising from a document that was tabled in the Senate as a result of the Senate resolution of the 6th of December 2017. On page 2 of the document, under section 3, you list a range of organisations that were met with—and they're all banks, insurance councils and financial sector organisations. After that you talk about the health impacts of these chemicals and you state:

The Taskforce … highlighted the lack of consistent scientific evidence of adverse human health effects from PFAS exposure.

Considering there is considerable evidence about the dangers of these chemicals from internationally recognised bodies—and I would like to just read a couple of those—my question is: why have you made that conclusion? The United Nations POPRC—that is, the Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee to the Stockholm Convention and, as you know, Australia is a signatory to that—found that PFOA was likely to lead to, and this is directly from the document:

… adverse health effects such as elevated cholesterol levels, altered reproductive/developmental effects, endocrine disruption, impaired neurodevelopment, as well as increased risk of cancer associated with PFOA exposure in humans. Scientific data have demonstrated PFOA-mediated immunotoxicity, primarily suppression of antibody response, in humans.

That's from the POP Review Committee and then NICNAS in 2003—which I would imagine you know well as Australia is part of along with New Zealand—referring here to the National Industrial Chemicals Notification Assessment Scheme, issued alerts to state environmental agencies on PFOS and PFOA, where it warned of the growing concerns about their impact and recommend they be used only for essential purposes where no alternative was available. They recommended the chemical not be used in firefighting training.

There've been a number of other studies, as I'm sure you are aware, and there've have been a significant number of court cases that have resulted in huge payouts from the makers of these chemicals. So going back to what was written in this document, why did you say to those finance institutions—and these are your words— 'you've highlighted the lack of consistent scientific evidence of adverse human health effects from PFAS exposure' to describe the situation?

Mr G Brown: The evidence that's coming through from our health officials and the FSANZ report is exactly that: there is no consistent evidence, as we sit here now, as to long-term health impacts from exposure to PFAS.

Senator RHIANNON: But you could say that of so many chemicals where there are a range of views. Considering the significance of that advice that came from the POP review—and we're talking about the United Nations review on these organic chemicals—do you dismiss that or do you just not give it the weighting that many others who are researching this field do?

Mr G Brown: Senator, we rely on the evidence that's presented to us and the information that's presented to us by the Commonwealth Department of Health and the FSANZ report, and their advice is: there is no consistent evidence. It's probably worth asking: what does that mean? It means that the studies are finding inconsistencies with any outcomes from exposure to PFAS. It means that you may find a particular issue in one study, but it doesn't appear in another study. So we're not in a position to definitively say that any particular health issue can be specifically linked back to exposure to PFAS. I would add that the Department of Health has commissioned a study through the ANU which will be providing a report back to them, potentially by the middle of March. That will help direct where we can do further studies. But again, as we sit here today, the information is inconclusive.

Senator RHIANNON: The question that I asked was about your response to this significant study from the United Nations. It's a review committee to the Stockholm Convention. Australia is a signatory to that, and those are their findings. The interpretation you take from what you wrote in the document given to the Senate and how you are giving evidence now is that you're not giving that significant weighting.

Ms Hatfield Dodds: I think that level of detail is probably a question best directed to the health department. The task force that sits in Prime Minister and Cabinet really takes its advice from line agencies across the Commonwealth in terms of health impacts and potential health impacts on people.

Senator RHIANNON: Did you write this document? The one that was given to the Senate.

Mr G Brown: I suspect so, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Under section 3, you speak about:

· Activities to monitor and manage PFAS contamination, such as establishing water treatment plants to treat contamination at water sources, conducting research in soil solidification and stabilisation, conducting studies of PFAS uptake in plants—

and a whole number of other edibles, and—

alternative drinking water to affected communities.

Are you going to undertake that on all sites that have been identified where PFAS contamination has been found? Mr G Brown: That's an issue for the relevant department, whether it be the Department of Defence; the Department of Infrastructure, through the airport; or, dare I even say, the state agencies as well, where it's a private sector company. Senator RHIANNON: This is where I suppose it is written in an extraordinary way. That's a dot point under your lead-in, and that's why I asked if you'd written it.

Mr G Brown: I should correct that: I'm not completely aware of the document you're referring to. If I could have a look at it, that would probably help.

Senator RHIANNON: It's called the 'Australian Government Response to Senate Resolution of 6 December 2017'. I was told that it came from—

Mr G Brown: Yes, it did come from the task force.

Senator RHIANNON: The frustration of the community about what the health consequences of this are—as you know, their properties are worthless in most cases—is extreme. The document is confusing in many ways. Your lead-in to what I have just read out is:

· The Australian Government has invested heavily in a wide range of activities to address PFAS contamination, its impacts, and to better understand the potential health effects relating to PFAS exposure including—

and then you list those activities. It sounds like you're recommending that this is what should go on at PFAS contaminated sites.

Mr G Brown: Where a potential for PFAS to exist is identified, a study would be undertaken. By way of example, I think Defence is currently investigating 22 sites and Airservices and department of infrastructure have about 20 sites that we're aware of. There would be certain protocols. I'm not fully across what those protocols are, but they would be following certain protocols in terms of their study and research into ascertaining the extent of the contamination that does or does not exist within the investigation area for that particular site.

Senator RHIANNON: You've mentioned a possibility of about 40 sites where you've listed activities to monitor and manage PFAS contamination, water treatment plants, research—is that what will go on at those 40 sites?

Mr G Brown: First of all, it would be down to the individual agency to make the determination of what should be done.

Senator RHIANNON: Let's go through it one by one, because it really is unclear. When you say 'individual agency', are you talking about the RAAF at Williamtown?

Mr G Brown: It would be the Department of Defence at Williamtown. It would be Airservices at a—

Senator RHIANNON: So you're offering them water treatment and research, and it's up to them to say what they want–is that how it works?

Mr G Brown: They're  examples of some of the things that are being done. It doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be done at every site. It would be inappropriate to supply a water treatment plant where there are only minimal trace elements and the bulk of the people have access to reticulated water. It would be nonsensical to invest in the cost of putting in a water treatment plant specifically for bore water where you can provide reticulated water from the town water supply infinitely less expensively and more efficiently.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay, so it's up to the department to decide at each of those sites. With regard to Williamtown, you speak about—let me find it. It's actually your first point:

· The Department of Defence continues to implement a range of response management actions at RAAF Base Williamtown, with the aim of reducing and containing the movement of PFAS off site, and removing exposure pathways for residents.

Mr G Brown: Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: You actually say 'with the aim of', which suggests it hasn't started. The Department of Defence has known about this for many years, it has been publicly admitted for a bit over two years, and you're still only talking about the aim of reducing and containing the movement of PFAS offsite.

Mr G Brown: That document was written in relation to a Senate question dating back to 2016, as I recall.

Senator RHIANNON: No, it was in response to the Senate's resolution of 6 December 2017.

Mr G Brown: Okay. Fair enough. The research and the work are ongoing there. As you'd be aware, Defence have installed a microfiltration system there using activated carbon, and they're using that to extract the PFAS from the water in, I think, Lake Cochran. They're also taking specific steps, and, with respect, you'd be better off speaking to Defence on the specifics about it. What I can tell you is that they are working to remove the pathways of the PFAS leaving the site.

Senator RHIANNON: So is it the pathways or is it actually the contaminated soil? And why haven't you actually acted on it? That's a question I get all the time. I know it's complex; these are soluble chemicals, and it's incredibly complex. But we're talking about people's lives and all the risk complexities. Why didn't you, from the very beginning, move to work on removing the source?

Mr G Brown: The most effective way of dealing with the issue in the first instance is to eliminate the pathway. The pathway is predominantly through the consumption of contaminated water, so the provision of reticulated water is the best way to remove the source of the contamination from human consumption. We've got a study from the University of Queensland that has identified that if you remove exposure to the contamination then over time the PFAS levels in the human body reduce. That's a published report from the University of Queensland.

Ms Hatfield Dodds: I note as well that the approach the Australian government is taking is very much a precautionary approach, given that we still don't know yet, in a consistent way, that there are consistently harmful impacts on human health. The government has taken a risk-averse approach and put in place the kind of precautionary measures that Geoff is describing.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering we might be out of time, I'll go to the main question. Considering the government has from the beginning admitted total liability for this—that it's the actions of the Department of Defence that have caused the contamination—why do you continue not to negotiate compensation and buyouts for the local people?

Ms Hatfield Dodds: I don't think it's true that the Commonwealth has accepted full liability for PFAS and that family of chemical contamination across the nation.

Senator RHIANNON: Let's take it base by base if we have to, or site by site. I'm sure I could go through Hansard and find that when I've asked that question previously the Department of Defence have never denied it. Let's say it's Williamtown: are you denying that you're responsible?

Ms Hatfield Dodds: No. Drilling down to that level, I think those are questions you really need to ask of the defence department, because they've got carriage of the Defence portfolio's response to PFAS.

Senator RHIANNON: Seriously, this is where I get bounced from Defence to Health to the task force. I really came here—I've never asked you questions before—because I understood that the task force is the bee's knees on this, that you're the ones who do the whole lot and that you'd answer the questions, even if it were to say no, rather than bounce me sideways.

Ms Hatfield Dodds: The task force has responsibility for coordination of the response to PFAS across the Commonwealth, but it's really about aligning, as central agencies often do, the Commonwealth's work across its agencies. For a complete and detailed answer on what the Department of Defence has said or not said on its liability in relation to PFAS contamination, you really need to direct it to that portfolio.

Senator RHIANNON: But, as you've just talked about consistency across departments, surely one of the top things you would be working to have consistency on is for when people like me and others come along and ask you about compensation? You must have discussed that?

Ms Hatfield Dodds: I am confident in advising you that the Commonwealth has not accepted, or not said it has accepted, full liability for PFAS contamination across Australia. That just isn't the case.

Senator RHIANNON: Let's drop across Australia. Let's talk about it site by site that the government has total responsibility for where this PFAS pours out of. Are you saying you haven't discussed that at your task force?

Ms Hatfield Dodds: We have discussed that. I'd still direct you to Defence. Certainly I would say that the Commonwealth is not trying to walk away from its responsibilities to the Australian public around contaminated sites. But you'd have to ask—

Senator RHIANNON: When you've discussed it at the task force, was your conclusion that you wouldn't have a common position, that you would send it back to the department. Is that what you concluded at your task force?

Mr G Brown: Senator, we have recently had signed, and you can actually see it on the COAG website, an intergovernmental agreement that is exactly about obtaining consistency in the approach to dealing with the PFAS contamination. So, yes, there is a document out there that articulates how we can achieve a consistent approach to dealing with the contamination. It's been signed by at least one state, and maybe more now, so it is activating across the Commonwealth. That's available. We are working towards getting a consistent approach to dealing with this through both the Commonwealth and the states.

CHAIR: The committee will now break.

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