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

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 13 Jun 2018

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

PFOS

Senator RHIANNON: I want to start off with some questions about how the Department of Defence interacts with the task force that was set up by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. I notice that there's now a dedicated website, pfas.gov.au, but I notice that the page is not branded with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and that there are no contact details. Can you explain the relationship the Department of Defence has with this task force? Then I'll get into practical measures.

Senator Payne: Mr Grzeskowiak might also want to indicate that the responsibility has now transferred to the Department of the Environment and Energy.

Mr Grzeskowiak: The announcement on 7 May from the government contained within it a statement to the effect that the task force will continue its operation, in terms of coordinating whole-of-government activity, but the leadership has moved into the department of the environment. Defence works closely with the task force, and has done since its inception, including seconding people into the task force process for various periods of time. We continue to work closely with the task force, now led by the department of the environment, on Defence matters in relation to the broader government issue of PFAS.

Senator RHIANNON: Since the task force was set up, how many meetings have representatives of the department attended, and how many meetings have been held?

Mr Grzeskowiak: Defence would have attended all of the meetings of the task force. I'll have to take on notice the actual number.

Senator RHIANNON: Has the task force visited contaminated sites, or is it a matter of having meetings about your plans?

Mr Grzeskowiak : Defence hosted some members of the task force at at least two of the contaminated sites, being Williamtown and Oakey. We've also had members of the task force hosted at community reference group meetings in Williamtown.

Senator RHIANNON: Now that you've said that it's under the Department of the Environment and Energy: does the task force report to the Department of the Environment and Energy—is that how it works?

Mr Grzeskowiak: The leadership of the task force is now embedded in the department of the environment, although government departments that have work to do in this area would communicate with the task force through the department of the environment.

Senator RHIANNON: In terms of discussions that go on in the task force, have the task force members considered how they handle communities in contaminated areas with regard to how they interact with those communities? Is that an issue that the task force considers?

Mr Grzeskowiak: The task force is looking at the coordination of activities from different government departments. Obviously, Defence is involved in terms of the work that we're doing, but so are a range of other agencies—the Department of Health, in terms of the work they are doing; the department of the environment themselves; the department of agriculture; and the Prime Minister's department. Part of the conversations that go on would be about learning how we can best offer our community engagement. I've said here before that we are a learning organisation. We constantly seek to adjust the way we offer our community engagement based on feedback from communities to make them as effective as possible.

Senator RHIANNON: You just talked about how best to offer community engagement. One of the issues that has been raised with our office from communities in contaminated areas is that they've seen a shift from public meetings to one-on-one events. Is that correct?

Senator Payne: Are you asking specifically in relation to Defence or to the task force? If you are asking in relation to the task force, it is a matter for the department of the environment.

Senator RHIANNON: No, I appreciate that. I want the questions to go to the Department of Defence, but I'm also interested in if this tactical issue has been discussed at the task force. Let's start off with how the Department of Defence is handling its interactions with the affected communities.

Mr Grzeskowiak : It depends on which community we are in and the nature of the community engagement, whether we are presenting the results of a major study or milestone in the process of the investigation or whether we are just enabling people an opportunity to talk to us between significant events, if you like, in the study. We use different types of engagement for different circumstances, and it's fair to say we use different types of engagement in different places as well. When we started this process, we tended to do what we called town hall meetings. That would be the big meeting with lots of people. Quite a lot of feedback from communities around those meetings was that some people felt they were a bit intimidating and therefore they didn't want to ask a question in the broader public forum, and they would appreciate an opportunity to be able to talk one-on-one to people, so we then moved to a process where we have now quite an emphasis on that. We call them drop-in sessions. We might be in a local community centre—we do some of them in local shopping centres—where we will set up and have experts all day, and people drop in for a chat about whatever's on their mind. At some of those sessions we will run presentations at certain times of the day; at some of them we don't. It varies, and we are learning all the time about how to do this.

Senator RHIANNON: How long since you have organised a public town hall style meeting?

Senator Payne: Where?

Senator RHIANNON: Anywhere.

Mr Grzeskowiak : My next one will be on 18 June in Katherine, where we will be briefing on the results of the human health risk assessment final study. That will be characterised by a presentation that people can come and witness, but will also provide the opportunity to talk to individual specialists one-on-one.

Senator RHIANNON: Why I'm asking those questions is one of the issues—did you have other information?

Mr Grzeskowiak : I've just been advised that we did an open forum style briefing in Richmond fairly recently as well. We are still doing those open forum type briefings, but the strongest voice we get from the quiet majority in most of our community sessions is that they prefer the one-on-one or the ability to have smaller sessions where they can drop in and talk about their specific circumstance. They don't necessarily want lots of other people listening to that conversation at the same time, so we've responded to that feedback.

Senator RHIANNON: To clarify: you are having a public meeting in Katherine, but then you'll go into one-on-ones. Does that mean there won't be an opportunity for questions from the floor and a collective discussion?

Mr Grzeskowiak : No, there will. We always make time available for questions from the floor.

Senator RHIANNON: The complaint we are receiving is that there has been a shift from public meetings where people could hear other ideas—and often be quite strengthened, knowing that other members of the community were struggling with the same issues—to one-to-one meetings. That tactic is often used because it's harder for communities to become organised. You've said that you have received this feedback, but have you done focus groups or surveys to determine how people want to interact with you, or is it an assumption you have made?

Mr Grzeskowiak : We talk to people.

Senator RHIANNON: You talk to them?

Mr Grzeskowiak : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: That sounds like it's not really evidence-based—that you had some conversations with people, but it's not a sampling of the community on how—

Mr Grzeskowiak : My people on the ground talk to a lot of people. I can assure you that the majority view that we're hearing is that the opportunity for one-on-one sessions with the health expert, the environmental expert, the people doing the remediation, somebody from Defence, whatever the issue is, is valued by the majority of members in the community. That is not to say we don't do broader presentations to a larger audience. We do, and there are always opportunities for questions.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take it on notice and provide the committee with a list of public town hall meetings that have been held, where there can be a Q&A at the end, and of those one-on-one meetings—

Mr Grzeskowiak : We can certainly take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: for the different areas where you interact?

Senator Payne: There are a number of other variations on that. I think the response should put together all of the public consultation activity.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for your advice on that, Minister. I also want to go to some of the work of the health department, and how you're interacting with that. The health department has released a report prepared by the Expert Health Panel for PFAS. The panel noted that even though the evidence for PFAS exposure and links to health effects is very weak and inconsistent:

… important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out based on the current evidence.

Are you aware of that report?

Mr Grzeskowiak : I am.

Senator RHIANNON: Has the Department of Defence reassessed its decisions—and I want to go through various aspects of the decisions you've been making? In light of that advice from the health department, have you reassessed your decisions on providing compensation to people impacted by contamination resulting from activities on your bases?

Mr Grzeskowiak : We've of course had a look at that report. The report essentially supports the approach Defence has been taking thus far, which is to minimise exposure pathways for people who were previously exposed to PFAS-contaminated water or products grown with that water. The view is that the report supports previous information that has been put out by the health department and other bodies that operate in that space. That's in part why the government announced a sustainable water program on 7 May, which sees Defence carry on doing what it's doing in helping people adapt their properties—largely through the connection to town water or water tanks—so that they can live in accordance with the various precautionary measures that might have been put in place by a state or territory authority.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that that report from the health experts—and I'll repeat the key phrase again:

… for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out based on the current evidence—

is at variance with previous evidence that you have given, where it's been denied that there is evidence about the accumulative impacts of this contamination.

Mr Grzeskowiak : Defence is not an expert in health. We have consistently said that we look to the peak bodies in Australia for advice on health effects. The peak body is enHealth. As I understand it—and the Department of Health would know better than me—enHealth have not sought to change their guidance based on this latest report, which was released a few weeks ago. The enHealth guidance is:

There is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFOS and PFOA causes adverse human health effects.

But they go on to say that, as a precaution, exposure should be minimised. That's the statement from enHealth. They have not chosen to modify that statement as a result of the latest health report. Beyond that, I think your questions should be directed to the Department of Health.

Senator RHIANNON: To go back to my original question: has the Department of Defence reassessed its decisions on compensation and land buyouts? I'm taking from the answer that you've just given that you haven't. Is that a fair assumption?

Mr Grzeskowiak : No. You've misinterpreted my answer. We have looked at the report. The report backs up the approach that Defence has been taking, so we are carrying on taking the same approach, which is around enabling people to live in their properties with access to clean water and other support mechanisms. The report released a couple of weeks ago by the expert panel supports the approach that Defence has been taking. Our view is that we need to keep doing what we're doing: breaking exposure pathways, and then moving into remediation as a focus.

Senator RHIANNON: With all due respect, my question was: has the Department of Defence reassessed its decisions on compensation and land buyouts? The conclusion is: you haven't.

Senator Payne: As you know, the matter in relation to those questions is being considered through the task force previously located in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, now located in the department of the environment. In the announcements concerning this area, which were made on 7 May, that matter was also addressed. It's not been a matter handled by the Department of Defence.

Senator RHIANNON: I also want to ask: have you reassessed your decisions with regard to advice being given to people about eating produce that they're responsible for? The one I'd really like to deal with is beef. I've been given reports that, in some areas, you advise beef cattle shouldn't be eaten by people in the contaminated area, whose cattle it is, but they can sell cattle on to the market. Is that the case?

Mr Grzeskowiak : The first thing I'd clarify is that the advice around consumption of food does not come from the Department of Defence per se. It comes from either Health or the various state and territory environmental protection agencies. They look to organisations like Food Standards Australia New Zealand in making their advice. I might just take a few minutes to explain the issue you've just alluded to. The advice from the experts in Health is that those people who might be in a situation where they have a higher-than-average potential exposure to PFAS should not consume products that have been grown using PFAS-contaminated water, which could include beef, because their starting point is as a higher-exposed population. Therefore, they should seek to, as a precaution, minimise their population. However, those products can be sold into the open market, because the view from the health experts and the Food Standards Australia New Zealand people is that when food goes into the broader market, it's separated into a very diverse supply chain. The probability of anybody eating steak three times a week from an area where there might be some contamination, whether it's PFAS contamination or some other form of contamination, is very low. No food standards agency in the world has yet sought to regulate any level of allowable PFAS in any food anywhere in the world, hence why you hear statements from those bodies that are authorised to issue them—and Defence repeats them, because we do communicate. In some situations, while people would be advised against eating beef, as an example, that they have grown using PFAS-impacted water, there's no impediment to that being sold into a broader supply chain.

Senator RHIANNON: In response to a question I just asked, you made the comment that precautions should be minimised. My question arising from that is: does the department have a policy when it comes to applying the precautionary principle, which I'm sure you're aware of but I'm happy to read out a definition if you wish?

Mr Grzeskowiak : The advice given to communities in areas where we are finding PFAS, particularly to people who have been drinking water that has been impacted by PFAS, is that they should minimise any future consumption. That's why we're taking the approach we are taking, which is to provide clean water—the government recently announced the continuation of the sustainable water project—and we will continue to do that to ensure that people who have been affected by this continue to take the precaution of minimising their exposure.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you agree, then, that applying the precautionary principle is sensible public policy? Is that a foundation?

Mr Grzeskowiak : That is the policy from enHealth, who are the peak body within the health organisation. Their statement is: while there is no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS chemicals causes any adverse health effect in humans, as a precaution, exposure should be minimised.

Senator RHIANNON: So the precautionary principle also identifies the need, because of a lack of certainty that the science is still working it through. The principal working in terms of eliminating the actual source of contamination. In terms of how you described it and in terms of the contamination we know is there, doesn't it point to a need to apply the principle in the case PFAS contamination and therefore take immediate action to buy residents out of their properties?

Mr Grzeskowiak : We are applying the precautionary principle by taking immediate action to break the exposure pathways. All the experts in the field we talk to say this is the first thing that should be done: break the exposure pathways and have no further exposure. The next thing we are doing is looking at remediation of the environment. We have started that process at some sites. I have explained to you before what we are doing in terms of cleaning water in towns like Williamtown, Oakey and Tindal and we will be doing that in other places as well. We have started to remove soil from drains. In fact, we have done that work at RAAF base Williamtown and at the Army Aviation Centre Oakey. We are looking at doing more in those places and in other places. The precautionary principle is all about minimising exposure. It is the first thing and that's what we are doing. How do we start to remediate the environment? With these compounds, we are now pretty confident we know how to remove them from water and we are starting that work but it will be an extended piece of work over a long time. Remediation from soil is so challenging. We look worldwide for companies that can help us do this.

Senator RHIANNON: You talked about the precautionary principle of minimising exposure. But the usual definition of 'cautionary principle' is that you actually remove the exposure and, if the contamination cannot be removed then remove the people and assist them with that. There are some interesting examples in various international publications. One of them about PFAS from 2016 is a journal article called the Precautionary principle and chemicals management: the example of polyfluoroalkyl acids in groundwater. It was addressed by separating people from the actual chemical exposure. That's the accepted definition of precautionary principle. It was good to hear you are talking about the precautionary principle but worrying in terms of how you are defining it. Are you saying there is another definition of precautionary principle or have you chosen to redefine it?

Mr Grzeskowiak : I'm not a redefining it. What I am saying is there is more than one mechanism for applying the precautionary principle. The mechanism we are applying is to remove exposure pathways by making clean water available and there are some other things that we are doing so that people can live in their properties in accordance with the advice provided by the local relevant state or territory health or environmental protection agencies.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say 'remove exposure pathways', people in Oakey and Williamtown are still living with the contamination. And because of the terrible agitation and uncertainty they have lived with, some of them would prefer to move but now their properties are worthless—again, the human aspects. We first met and started having question-and-answer sessions back in 2015 but three years later, that aspect of people's lives, you are still not dealing with. Is that a fair description?

Mr Grzeskowiak : We are working as diligently as we can to ensure that the people in the communities that are affected have access to clean water and can live a life in those properties in accordance with the precautions that have been laid down by the local health or environmental protection agencies. The majority of the exposure would come from the consumption of water, usually groundwater, that contains PFAS. By taking that exposure pathway away and helping people in some other ways, we can eliminate the exposure pathway. I accept that that does not eliminate the angst that many people feel because of the uncertainty of the knowledge of science around what these chemicals might do. All I can do is look to the peak bodies in this country—enHealth, the Department of Health and the expert panel that was put together. The expert panel released its report two weeks ago, and there is a body of evidence there that says that there's no consistent evidence that exposure to these chemicals is actually causing any adverse health effects in people.

Senator RHIANNON: That's the quote from the report. It said:

… important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out based on the current evidence.

Mr Grzeskowiak : That is exactly what the report says, and that's why it goes on to talk about minimising exposure as a precaution. That is what we're doing.

Senator PATRICK: This is on the same topic but dealing with RAAF Edinburgh. My understanding is that the RAAF ceased using PFAS there back in 2004. Would that be about right?

Mr Grzeskowiak : Around 2004, a decision was made to move away from the old 3M Light Water, which contained PFOS and PFOA as active ingredients. It didn't all happen magically in the space of a few months. There was a phasing out period over a few years where the chemicals were changed to a product that's called Ansulite, which is what we still use.

Senator PATRICK: I think you've done a set of samplings around Edinburgh and you're extending those samples. When did the original sampling commence?

Mr Grzeskowiak : The investigation would have commenced last year. We always say when we undertake an investigation that we nominate an initial investigation area. That's based on some analysis by people who know about how the hydrogeology works—how the rivers or stream networks might work—and then we go and do the sampling and analysis of that investigation area. Based on what we find, sometimes we may need to expand the area. Obviously, if we're out at the edge of an area and we're still finding things, we might want to expand the area, or there may be some other reason why we want to expand the area. In this case, we have expanded the area. Over a thousand samples have been taken so far. There'll be another 500 or so samples taken in the expanded area. We're not finding large amounts of PFAS outside of the base at Edinburgh. We're finding it mostly in surface water. We're not really finding it in underground water. That's due to the nature of the types of soil and the hydrogeology of the area. It doesn't seem to be leaving the base at the sort of rates it is in some other places.

Senator PATRICK: Who was engaged to do that first set of sampling?

Mr Grzeskowiak : The environmental consultant was a company called JBS&G. I'm not sure what that stands for.

Senator PATRICK: So they had the expertise to establish what area made sense to do as a first instance.

Mr Grzeskowiak : Yes. We take advice from them on what to do. We are engaging companies that have the necessary expertise in this sort of environmental analysis. You may be aware that we're running 23 investigations around the country at the moment. We're using quite a lot of Australia's capacity in terms of companies that can do this sort of work.

Senator PATRICK: I presume there was a report generated after that first engagement. Assuming that's the case, is that report public?

Mr Grzeskowiak : Yes. We have a three-stage process. Initially, there is a preliminary site investigation, and that would have been completed at this base. We always make our information publicly available. We do community sessions to brief that to people and allow them to talk to the experts. The second phase is then the detailed site investigation. That's ongoing at Edinburgh at the moment. If required, we will do a human health risk assessment and environmental risk assessment. At Edinburgh, we are doing a human health risk assessment.

Senator PATRICK: When do you expect the second round of samplings to be completed for Edinburgh?

Mr McLeod : We expect those to be completed in the third quarter of this year and we'd be back in the community towards the latter end of the year to provide the results of those investigations.

Senator PATRICK: The report will be made public?

Mr McLeod : Yes.

Senator PATRICK: I note that you are doing consultation. In fact, my office got an invitation, so thank you for that. Can I have a summary, as was prescribed by Senator Rhiannon for the New South Wales sites? Can I get one of those that describes the consultation that's taken place for Edinburgh, please?

Mr Grzeskowiak : A list of the consultations that we've undertaken?

Senator PATRICK: Yes, in a similar form. The minister made mention of the fact that there were different types of consultation.

Senator Payne: Yes, that's right.

Mr Grzeskowiak : We can provide that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Can I clarify, Chair: I'd been asking for it from around the country, not just for New South Wales. Is it okay if that goes on notice?

Senator Payne: Across the sites—yes, Senator.

 

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