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Senate Estimates: Lee questions Defence on PFAS Contamination

In Senate estimates this month we've confirmed that currently not a single resident affected by contamination at Defence sites have been compensated. 

Defence confirmed they have received and are processing 25 "non -litigated claims" for compensation across Williamtown, Oakey and Kathrine. 

On Wednesday 25th October 2017, Lee asked the following questions of Steve Grzeskowiak, Deputy Secretary, Estate and Infrastructure and Chris Birrer, First Assistant Secretary, Infrastructure as part of Estimates hearings by the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee

Senator RHIANNON: I want to ask some questions about contamination, mainly at Williamtown but a few general ones as well.

Senator Payne: Sorry, I missed the end to that? I heard you wanted to ask questions about contamination mainly, but I missed the rest.

Senator RHIANNON: Mainly about Williamtown but a few general ones as well.

Senator Payne: I will just ask the appropriate officials to come do the table.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, there are several senators who have questions on this topic. Can you give us an indication how long you'll be?

Senator RHIANNON: It depends on how long the answers are. I don't think it will be that long. It depends on answers. There are three parts to this. When will the community reference group next meet; when will the elected representatives reference group next meet; and when will there be another community drop-in session for the people of Williamtown?

Mr Grzeskowiak: The community reference group is organised by the New South Wales government.

They're going through a process at the moment of restructuring of the format of that group. It's a matter for them as to how that reformatting is concluded and when meetings will occur. It's also a matter for the New South Wales government as to who they ultimately decide to bring into that community reference group. From a Department of Defence perspective, we are planning on the next community information session sometime in the second half of November. I'm not sure if the dates are locked down yet.

Senator RHIANNON: Is the elected representative group yours or New South Wales?

Mr Grzeskowiak: That's organised by the New South Wales government, so I can't talk about when that might be.

Senator RHIANNON: What steps is the department taking to increase the capacity of the water treatment plants at the base to limit the further release of the potentially contaminated water?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We've recently introduced a third water treatment plant, which is a containerised plant we've brought in from an American organisation. That's now commissioned and treating water that's exiting out of Moor's Drain. We now have the water treatment plant associated with construction—that's been operating there for a long time; a water treatment plant cleaning water out of Lake Cochran, preventing discharge through Dawson's Drain; and a water treatment plant on Moor's Drain. So far, we've treated over 900 million litres of water, down to levels that are, in most cases, below the limit of detection. That water then is put back into the environment. We've ramped up our efforts in recent times. Those plants will continue to run for a considerable amount of time. We are still researching other methods for, particularly, cleaning soil. As well, on the base we are in the process now of starting to take away some of the surface soil from some of the drains on the base. We are digging 200 millimetres of soil out of around three kilometres of drains. We are doing that because that soil in the top of the drain has higher levels of PFOS contamination from over the years, so we are taking that out. As fresh rain comes down, it means it runs through soil that is clean and therefore doesn't take any PFOS off the base.

Those two strategies are in place at the moment. We're working through a process to start doing more remediation, particularly of what we refer to as a source area on the base. For example, the old firefighting training areas where, I think, our current plan is that we'd be seeking to excavate and store soil in a safe area until such time as we can find effective mechanisms for decontaminating soil.

Senator RHIANNON: All of the decontaminated soil that you are digging up from the drains has been stored on base?

Mr Grzeskowiak: It is being stored on base in a way that means it can't leach into the environment.

Senator RHIANNON: So the water can't leach through it?

Mr Grzeskowiak: Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: It's nearly two years since we had the inquiry. You knew about it before that, but there was no decision to actually stop the source at that stage. The water was continuing to run off the base. When was the decision made, if I understand correctly, to dig up the contaminated soil and to clean up the water that's coming off the base? Is it correct that there has been a change in policy with regard to remediation of the soil and water, so that you stop the source of this contamination?

Mr Grzeskowiak: I wouldn't characterise that as a change of policy. If we go back a couple of years, when we first held those community reference groups members of the community were obviously saying, 'Can you just stop this coming off the base?' At that time our response was, 'We're looking into mechanisms to do that, but there's no silver bullet or easy way of achieving that.' We're always going to try to stop the contamination leaving the base. We've stopped a significant amount of potential contamination coming off the base, through the water treatment activities that we're doing, but, as you may be aware, certainly from the information we've talked about in the community sessions, part of the problem in Williamtown in particular is the nature of the water table there.

There are other mechanisms, particularly by PFAS moving from the soil into the underground water and then moving underground off the base. That is something we have not been able to stop at this point. Digging up the source areas is a mechanism of starting to stop that pathway. We've been quite open in saying that it will be a fair while before we'd be able to say, hand on heart, that we've stopped PFAS leaving the base.

Senator RHIANNON: Is part of the problem that you have in dealing with this enormous problem the upgrade that's going on at the base at the moment, that it has made it difficult for you to undertake the thorough remediation that's required?

Mr Grzeskowiak: No; in fact, quite the opposite. With the upgrade that's going on through the new air combat capability project, the first of the water treatment plants to be put in place, which has been there for at least 18 months, is treating the water that's associated with foundation work for those works. Because the water table is so near the surface, as you dig foundations, they naturally tend to fill with water. We've been excavating that water, sucking that water out through a water treatment plant, and reinjecting it into the ground as treated water. We've been testing the soil that's been excavated, and in the majority of it we're not finding any PFAS. In some parts of that excavation we found low levels of PFAS in that soil. Where that's been the case, the soil would have been either stored on base or disposed of through New South Wales EPA approved processes. It's fair to say that the works we've been doing, because of that water treatment plant that we've put in place, have effectively been contributing to the decontamination of the site.

Senator RHIANNON: I might have missed it when you said it, but, just to clarify: the soil that you're dealing with, and the water, is that all inside the base, or are you dealing with the contaminated soil outside the base as well?

Mr McNamara: At this point, the drain maintenance work and the soil that's being removed from the Joint Strike Fighter works—I should clarify that any soil we've had to store because of any contamination is stored on the base. At the moment that's work on the base. We have an ongoing study looking at the broader drainage network around the area outside the base—so Moors Drain, Dawsons Drain and the like—and we're working with Port Stephens Council on that. There will hopefully be some recommendations from that work that will give us an indication about options for further decontamination outside of the base. But the focus for starting the decontamination has been on the base, because that's the source area, and generally the advice is to try to decontaminate the source areas first to prevent further contamination, and then move further out to see what decontamination can be done in the broader area surrounding the base.

Senator RHIANNON: Can we move onto the issue of compensation? Has anyone been paid compensation yet—any family, any person?

Mr McNamara: We do have a range of what are termed 'non-litigated compensation claims' with the department.

Senator RHIANNON: The question was: have any been paid, not if they're in progress. First question: has anybody been paid?

Mr McNamara: To my knowledge, none of those claims have yet been settled.

Senator RHIANNON: So they are in progress. It's a matter of negotiation now about the price, is it?

Mr McNamara: They're being managed by our legal department through the normal process that they would use for that sort of claim management.

Senator RHIANNON: How many are you dealing with at the moment?

Mr Birrer: There are currently 25 non-litigated claims that have been received by Defence: 16 in relation to Williamtown, eight in relation to Oakey and one in relation to Katherine.

Senator RHIANNON: When did they commence and when do you think they'll be resolved?

Mr Grzeskowiak: The first of those claims probably would have been received in the order of 12 months ago. Some of them were received, or at least one was received, quite recently. I can't give a forecast for when settlement may occur.

Senator RHIANNON: But that's probably one of the most important questions for you to be clear on, because, with the stress this is putting people under, they just don't know what their future is. You would be aware that some people have now walked out of their homes and walked off their land. Surely you can give them some indication of when this will be finalised—I mean, you've got a whole department.

Mr Grzeskowiak: The claims are being dealt with by a legal team. I don't have personal visibility of most of those claims and I have no information about likely settlement times for those claims.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you take it on notice so that some clarity can be provided on this important question and people can have an understanding of what the future holds for them?

Mr Grzeskowiak: I'll take it on notice, but I'm not sure we can provide any further information than I'm giving. We generally wouldn't be able to talk about individual claims because of privacy reasons, of course. We will take it on notice, but I'd be surprised if we can give an answer that would say, 'These claims will be settled in this particular time frame.'

Senator RHIANNON: Can we move to the issue about—

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, there are other senators with questions on this issue.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay, I'll truncate these questions and do this quickly. You're now dealing with these problems in many areas. Is there a consistency between how you're working with the workers who have been impacted on the sites and the residents with regard to all the issues that you're dealing with, from compensation to health tests to remediation? Is there a consistency of standards you're working on? Let's start with blood tests. Is everyone being offered blood tests like they have been in Williamtown?

Mr Grzeskowiak: For those areas where the epidemiological study is in place, managed by the Department of Health, which includes blood tests, the eligibility criteria to be part of that process are the same for people whether they be members of the ADF or members of the public. For example, for Williamtown and Oakey, it's for people who've lived or worked within the investigation area, be they ADF people or members of the public.

Senator RHIANNON: Is that the same at all other bases where you have this problem?

Mr Grzeskowiak: We generally try and provide the same information and the same response mechanisms.

Senator RHIANNON: You just used the word 'generally', which always sets alarm bells off. Would you take it on notice to list the bases where the contamination has occurred? Are the blood tests provided? Are there dropin centres? Are the measures you're offering in Williamtown offered in other areas for both workers and residents?

Mr Grzeskowiak: In terms of community engagement, it's absolutely the same wherever we go. In terms of providing information to members of the community and members of Defence on the base, it's absolutely the same wherever we go. However, we do not do necessarily exactly the same things at each place we're investigating because the circumstances are different. We're running investigations now at 23 separate sites.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you provide on notice what's different? Thank you very much. My final question, which I'm sure can be quick, is about Shoalwater Bay. I understand there are two bases there, and they don't appear to be on the government's current list of investigation sites. Is that the case? If so, why?



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