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Estimates: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee: Defence Portfolio: Program 2.11: Estate and Infrastructure

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 21 Mar 2018

Wednesday, February 28

PFOS at RAAF bases

Senator RHIANNON: I have questions related to the force posture agreement and some of the construction in the area.

Senator Payne: Do you mean in the Northern Territory, Senator?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes. Considering that at the RAAF base at Tindal groundwater, and I think surface water too, has been found to be contaminated with PFAS—exceeding drinking water guidelines, to what degree has that disrupted the upgrade of this area for the US Marines?

Mr Grzeskowiak: At this stage it hasn't caused any disruption at all. The first piece of construction work that will be undertaken for the US Force Posture Initiatives will be some hard-standing and relatively small facilities on RAAF Base Darwin. That work is being managed by the United States team. It's an investment of around US$45 million, and tenders are in and that's being assessed. As we do any works now on the defence properties where we are aware of PFAS contamination, we would routinely do soil sampling in the areas where works are going to be undertaken to ensure that, if there is any contamination in the areas where we're doing work, we understand what it is and we take appropriate measures in terms of disposing of soils in accordance with local environmental protection authority—

Senator RHIANNON: Is that happening at Tindal, that you're removing the source of the contamination?

Mr Grzeskowiak: The works that we are doing at Tindal are for the new air combat capability, the Joint Strike Fighter. That's the major project at Tindal at the moment.

Senator RHIANNON: So you're not working on the contamination? Is that correct?

Mr Grzeskowiak: I'm just not sure what question you've asked me there.

Senator RHIANNON: I'm just trying to understand what you were just saying. Can I conclude that you're not working on removing the contamination?

Mr Grzeskowiak: At Tindal?

Senator RHIANNON: At Tindal.

Mr Grzeskowiak: We are currently planning for works that we will do to start looking at what other remediation options there are at Tindal. You'd be aware that, in terms of the water supply for Katherine and Tindal, we've installed a water treatment plant on the bore that is used by Northern Territory Power and Water to ensure that the town water supply remains well below the health based guidance values for drinking water. That is beginning to extract PFAS from the environment through that process. We couldn't actually do works at Tindal in terms of removing source areas and soil right now, because groundworks in the wet season are generally not easily done, but at the moment we're planning what we can do. As we track through this year, we will be undertaking some remediation works at Tindal. Seated here today, I can't tell you what they are, because we're still working through that process.

Senator RHIANNON: I will come back to the contamination questions for Williamtown, but will stay with the Northern Territory for the moment and the Force Posture Agreement and the facilities there. Looking at your website, it sets out that the Robertson Barracks and the two RAAF bases will be supplying the accommodation. The way it read is that that's adequate for the accommodation, but then you also read on the website that there will be facilities developed. I'm just trying to understand: are you upgrading the accommodation? Also, could you give us some detail of what the facilities are that are being developed?

Mr Grzeskowiak: There will be a range of works undertaken at RAAF Base Tindal, RAAF Base Darwin and Robertson Barracks associated with the US Force Posture Initiatives. They'll add up to in the order of A$2 billion in the fullness of time. They'll facilitate the increased presence of the US Marine Corps and their associated air task group as that grows over time. The facilities will be in the nature of those required to enable that capability to be based and trained out of those bases. It will be, for example, hardstanding and workshops for aircraft. There will be additional fuel and there will be additional accommodation and facilities for more of the marines— gymnasiums and the like. We'll also be extending the runway and putting in extra aircraft stands at RAAF Base Tindal, and associated works to enable the aircraft that need to be based there for the duration of the rotations. It's really quite a broad set of works that go to, essentially, up-gunning the facilities there to be able to cope with what will in time be roughly 2½ thousand marines during the rotation, plus a fairly significant air task group that accompanies them.

Senator RHIANNON: You mentioned the $2 billion; can you take it on notice and provide a breakdown for those three different areas—what the initial capital expenditure will be in those three areas and what the predicted ongoing annual costs are—so that we can get a breakdown on the $2 billion?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We'll take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Moving back to Williamtown, which we've dealt with a few times before, does the department still accept responsibility for the contamination of the red zone in Williamtown?

Mr Grzeskowiak: Senator, as I've said consistently, I think, in a range of places, we do not walk away from the fact that it was Defence people that used these products through the seventies, eighties and nineties, and therefore it was Defence that put these AFFF products into the ground. We don't walk away from that. That is why we are working diligently to try to understand these products, where they've moved to and how we can start to remediate the lands and work with the communities to ensure that any impacts on their lives that have been caused by us can be ameliorated. We have consistently said, 'Yes, we put this in the ground, and we are here for the long haul to try and clean it up and sort it out.' But as you would appreciate—I know from your research into this subject—these contaminants are still not fully understood by medical science and environmental science. We are working with many, many organisations to try to understand this. The government is funding research and a range of programs to support the community as well. We will be working through this for as long as it takes.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you aware that I asked questions to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet this week at estimates about the document headed, 'Australian Government Response to Senate Resolution of 6 December 2017'? When it came to asking about this issue of liability, they didn't give the same answer that you have. Are you aware that there appears to be an inconsistency here?

Mr Grzeskowiak: I did watch that hearing. If I might clarify, what I've consistently said is that Defence were the responsible entity that put these products into the ground, and therefore we are here to try to clean it up. I think the issue, in a purely legalistic sense, of liability and admission of liability is a separate issue. It's not something I'm going to comment on here, because, as you are aware, there are two class actions lodged against Defence that are before the courts at the moment. It is my understanding that, as those class actions progress, the legal view around liability will be resolved through those class actions, and therefore it's inappropriate for me to comment any further.

Senator RHIANNON: With regard to those class actions, just to try to understand, considering that we've had an ongoing dialogue about the issues of buyouts and compensation, is all of that on hold until you see the results of those class actions, and then the government will determine its response?

Senator Payne: Those are matters for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, not for Defence. That is the approach the government has taken.

Senator RHIANNON: Seriously, the only problem is, Minister, that when I asked questions there I was mainly bounced to the Department of Health and also bounced back to here. You're suggesting going back to the department—

Senator Payne: In terms of the whole-of-government response, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: It's good to have the minister on the record about that. To stay with Williamtown for—

Senator Payne: It's the same statement I've made before, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: Not specifically, with all due respect. Not specifically with regard to that document that came out just a few weeks ago. We haven't had estimates since the document came—

Senator Payne: Which document?

Senator RHIANNON: The document that I just quoted, which was PM&C's response to the Senate motion. I haven't asked you that question.

Senator Payne: I have a copy of that here.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, I know, but you haven't made that statement before, because the question has never been asked; we haven't had the opportunity

Senator Payne: Perhaps I misunderstood what you were asking. I thought you were asking about government responses across the board in relation to the contamination issues. I was indicating that those matters are being handled through the Prime Minister and Cabinet process.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much.

Senator Payne: If I misspoke, my apologies.

Senator RHIANNON: Thanks. Fairfax Media independently tested Dawsons Drain and came back with staggering results, that PFAS contamination was 1,900 times the combined safe limit for contaminants in drinking water. I understand that the department has denied the validity of these tests. Could you explain why you have denied the validity, considering that Dr Steven Lucas, sent out from the University of Newcastle, set out his methodology very clearly? Firstly, could you comment on that? Secondly, if you're disputing those tests, did you test Dawsons Drain yourself?

Mr Grzeskowiak: I'm not aware that the Department of Defence has in any way sought to deny the validity of those tests you refer to. We have tested Dawsons Drain on numerous occasions, as you'd be aware. In the Williamtown area over the last two to three years we've taken in excess of 10,000 samples of soil, water, sediment, biota, fish, plants and the like—probably, if not certainly, the most comprehensive environmental investigation ever undertaken in this country. Any sample that is taken is a point-in-time sample. We do see variation in our own samples when we go back to places we've previously sampled, for a whole range of reasons. I'm not aware that Defence has, in any way, sought to deny that test. We know that there are elevated levels of PFAS in the surface water and groundwater at Williamtown; that is now well known. All of our tests and information are publicly available on the websites. We are starting to work on remediation techniques in terms of cleaning water. As you'd be aware, we've excavated the drainage system on the base—that work has now finished—taking away the top 200 millimetres of soil where there is evidence of contamination. That has been stockpiled. That reduces the likelihood of the contamination in the drain being washed off the base. We have an ongoing drainage study by experts at the moment which will advise us on what we might or might not be able to do in Dawsons Drain and Moors Drain outside of the base. So there are several agencies doing tests. The New South Wales EPA would be undertaking tests in the area as well. From our perspective, we can only comment on the tests that we undertake. We use nationally accredited laboratories for all of our tests. We use credentialled operatives both to take the samples and to try and interpret them. We try and achieve the highest possible standard. All of our work is peer reviewed by credentialled third party experts and then offered to local, state and territory authorities, EPA, health authorities and the like for any final comments, and then made publicly available. Then we go to the community and we talk about it and bring experts in so that people can understand what we're doing.

Senator RHIANNON: I was interested to read recently, at the end of last year, about the decision to offer a $5.7 million support package to Katherine residents because of the contamination at that site. Are you offering similar packages to Williamtown and other impacted sites?

Mr Grzeskowiak: Williamtown and Oakey have had a support package that is similar to and possibly exceeds what we're doing at Katherine for over a year now.

Senator RHIANNON: More than $5.7 million?

Mr Grzeskowiak: I don't have the cost of those. It would be a similar order of magnitude; it might be slightly higher because there are more people involved. The support package includes people being part of the blood testing program and the epidemiological study associated with that if they so wish. It includes provision of clean water through a range of mechanisms: by connection to town water or by the installation of rainwater tanks, or whatever's appropriate for the area we're talking about. It includes access to counselling services and a range of other supports as appropriate. The support package we have in Katherine is modelled on what we have done previously at Williamtown and Oakey, but it may not be exactly the same as what we've done at Williamtown and Oakey. But there are a range of things in that package that are consistent. The first is that that package opens up the eligibility for blood testing, and the associated pre- and post-medical consultations that go with that blood testing, for anybody who has lived or worked in the investigation area. It opens up access to mental health support and the ability to speak to counsellors and the like as well. And, of course, there is the connection to a freshwater supply. In the Tindal area—Katherine—for the properties that we're connecting a freshwater supply to, for people that relied on bore water which is proven to be contaminated, the solution there, I think, in every case is the installation of rainwater tanks. There are about 64 properties that will be given rainwater tanks. We're about halfway through that installation at the moment. They'll be sized so that they can fill up in the wet season and be big enough to survive the complete dry season. But for a number of years, if that proves not to be the case, we'll certainly refill the tanks if they run dry. So, while the exact detail of the support package at Katherine is slightly different to Williamtown and Oakey, it meets the same intent, and the intent really is to open up access to the blood-testing program, give people counselling and mental health support if they're feeling anxious about these things, and ensure an enduring connection to a clean water supply.

Mr Birrer: It's important, too, to note that the support packages have two essential themes, as Mr Grzeskowiak said: a precautionary step of providing mental health and counselling—and stepping in right at the beginning of an investigation and providing alternative water for people using bore water is also a precautionary measure, because we know that that's the most prominent exposure pathway—but secondly being able to help people to live consistently with the advice that's provided by the appropriate state or territory health authorities. That's been an important underpinning of the support that the government has provided to the people of Williamtown to allow them to live consistently with the advice that's been issued by the New South Wales EPA, including the long-term health precaution advice that the EPA announced on 19 November last year.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

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