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Lee on the Williamtown Contamination

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 13 Feb 2018

Monday, 12 February 2018

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (16:11): The debate before us today is most important. Across Australia, hundreds and hundreds of sites have now been identified as being contaminated with firefighting foam. The chemicals associated with that, known as PFOS and PFOA, have been identified as causing a range of health problems. We are seeing a government that is not managing it properly. I see stressed residents, who are uncertain of their futures and have seen their property values collapse, being fobbed off by the government. The stress that they're living with is extreme, and it's a real indictment of this government. Last Tuesday we saw the government come forward with a report that so many people were hoping would give them some certainty, but it has just added to the anger, confusion and stress.

We need to understand what we're dealing with, with these poisons, because I sometimes think that people think, 'Yes, another contamination.' It's not 'another contamination'. These are human-made chemicals that do not break down. They accumulate in the soil and the water. They bioaccumulate in the bodies of living organisms and in human beings. The critical issue to understand here is that they do not break down. Why don't they break down? Human beings were too clever: when they made these chemicals they made them in such a way that their structure would stay in place, even when it became soluble in water. That needs to be understood to understand the enormity of this problem—these chemicals build up and up in our bodies.

I want to share with you something that my colleague Senator Janet Rice alerted me too. She went to the wonderful dinner that the ABC puts on for people involved in Heywire. There was a young man there named Jarrod Sansom from Newcastle. I want to share with you some of his comments. It brings home the human side of what we're dealing with here. This young man was raised on one of the farms at Williamtown. They had 50 acres, and he described how wonderful his life was growing up with all the animals. They decided, after a point, that they had to leave their farm. This was before word of the contamination had been released. He said it was an upheaval for their family, leaving 100-plus years of family heritage behind. They moved away, and then they found out the devastating news. Initially, they were concerned about the neighbours they had left behind. These are Jarrod's words:

The RAAF base had been using fire extinguishers since the 1950s that contained toxic chemicals.

Over time, carcinogenic substances entered the town's drainage system, contaminating the water table.

The health impact on our family has now come to light.

My grandfather, along with three of his siblings Valmay, Milton and Monty, all died of stomach cancer.

Many of our old neighbours have been infected and fear the same fate.

Mum, Dad, my siblings and I all ate fresh produce from gardens which thrived on the contaminated water.

We all have to be tested—something we're putting off. Not out of laziness, but worry.

I don't feel angry at the RAAF base like many people do. I just feel devastated for those we left behind, in the 'red zone'.

It simply breaks my heart that people we grew up with are at risk of cancer.

Their homes are worth nothing; they can't even get a loan to do up a kitchen.

I can't begin to describe how sorry I feel for people still in the red zone.

Senator McGrath, Senator Paterson and everybody else on the coalition benches need to take that on board. This is the reality. You can come forward here and quote people saying, 'Well, the science isn't clear.' There are so many cancer clusters in this area. If you dig into the science, it is very clear what is going on.

And then there are the financial implications for the property values. How would any of us who owns a home feel if, all of a sudden, we found out that it was worthless because of contamination which we had nothing to do with? In fact, there is another body, in this case the federal government, that admits total responsibility. But that doesn't mean anything for these people. What they're left with is trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. They can't get compensation, they can't sell their property to anybody and they can't get a settlement from the government. This has been dragging on for years.

We got the Senate inquiry up in 2015. It's now 2018. One of the residents whom I have met a number of times is Lindsay Clout, from the Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group. He also runs a small business in horticulture there. The property is beautiful, but it's now in the red zone. This is what he said about last week's report:

Senator McGrath has a hide to be going in and telling the banks everything is alright ... Then those guys are looking at your newspaper—the Newcastle Heraldand seeing 50 cancer cases on a four-kilometre stretch.

Again, that is the reality which these people are living with. I make reference to his comments about the banks because it was something that was featured in Senator McGrath's report last week about the discussions that he had been having with various financial institutions. An Australian Bankers' Association spokesperson said, 'It was relying on the government to lead on the important issue and was assisting where possible.' But, again, when you read what is going on here—not that we're hearing everything the goes on behind closed doors, obviously—it's just like the spin that turns people off governments and politics so much these days. This spokesperson said:

Residents in affected areas should contact their bank with any concerns they may have or if they are experiencing financial difficulties.

These people have so many stories. Senator McGrath, you must have heard them when you went to Williamtown. It was one of the first things they raised with us. These are the comments from the government that have so incensed residents. They had feared the information that they might receive about how the government is handling the situation, but I think it even shocked those who were not really expecting anything in terms of the government's handling of it.

The Insurance Council of Australia has also been involved in this, and the issue has come up about the health consequences and to what degree that information has been relayed to the banks. It really has been quite minimal. I'm aware that Campbell Fuller from Insurance Council of Australia said that they were made aware of the US EPA study in 2016, but he goes on to say that 'the contamination had not had an effect on the availability or pricing of household insurance'. There are many examples where that is just not the case. There is the case of Ryan Baker. He has been looking to get a business loan. His house is located in the red zone, and he wanted a business loan so that he could get on with his life. He can't get that loan. These stories are repeated time and time again. This is an issue across Australia; we're hearing more and more reports of this contamination. There is the Gold Coast Airport and we've heard other speakers detail the Katherine situation. The reports there nominate that just about everyone in the town of Katherine has been impacted. It is seriously extraordinary the depth of the poisoning that is going on, yet you rely on a few crossbenchers to rattle the chains and put this on the agenda here. Sydney Airport is another one, and there is Oakey in Queensland. The list goes on and on.

Then there are the firefighters who contacted us who talked about how they undertook their training and they are worried about themselves and about the area where they undertook the training, with no proper safeguards in place. There's a report that cattle farmers in Queensland and New South Wales, near the Oakey and Williamtown bases, are concerned they are selling contaminated meat. They have told me that they are told not to eat the meat, but they can sell the meat.

This is a huge crisis. It is out of control. How much is this going to be allowed to go on? It's not about saying the Liberal-Nationals are to blame or that Labor is to blame. There's huge fault, and I think there's blame for the immediate situation, but this has a long-term history. We should now all be pulling together saying that the right thing will be done by the people and the right thing will be done in cleaning up the contaminated bases.

Many things have shocked me in dealing with the Williamtown community, but the one that really topped it was when I found out that they haven't stopped the contamination coming off the base. In this day and age, that is totally possible. Yes, it's hard to clean up this toxic pollution, but it can be stopped from coming off the base. But the pollution is out there and it's getting into the water—into the water of the Hunter. This is a disaster, and all parties should be working together. (Time expired)


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