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Speech: A Call for Full Transparency on the Williamtown Contamination

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 23 Nov 2015

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:06):

Water is truly the stuff of life. But if that water is coming out of Williamtown air base, then it might be making you very sick. That might be occurring because of the toxic contamination in the surface water and groundwater and the soil. One resident said to me when I visited there last week: 'I love the area, but I don't want to die because I live here.' The residents are feeling stressed and uncertain about their future, and when you hear their story you certainly understand how serious this is. Local residents coping with a potential health crisis are not certain and are not feeling confident about what they are hearing from state and federal governments.

The problems are exacerbated by the lack of support and transparency from the Defence department. The Defence department is responsible for Williamtown RAAF air base, and they had some interesting information to reveal at the estimates hearing in October. Again, they were not that forthcoming but, when you read it overall, you see many worrying contradictions. And this has further angered the local residents.

You would think that the federal government-the Department of Defence, specifically-would act on their duty of care to all who are impacted by their actions associated with this base. What is the situation for residents, not just in the hot zone but in other surrounding areas, for the staff who work there, for contract workers who come to the base and for the many visitors to this area?

Also, I have to give particular emphasis to the situation for the young children of many of the staff. Some of the stories that I was told when I was visiting were of how the children would play in these toxic chemicals because they actually make the surface of an area slippery, and it is understandable that kids would find that fun. So this was just one more disturbing aspect of this increasingly worrying saga.

Some of the dangers were revealed in the estimates. It was put on record by people from the Department of Defence that the Hunter Water Corporation has decided not to source any water from three of their pumping stations in the Williamtown area. The New South Wales EPA has advised that nobody should drink cow's milk or eat eggs or chicken from the area. We also understand that similar warnings have been given about fishing in the area and about eating oysters or meat from cattle in the area. It was also revealed that the run-off continues into Lake Cochran.

So the health and environmental problems have been put on the record. But then there is the way the people who live there are being treated and the lack of clear information and direction in terms of how they should act in the face of this worrying information: that the water that they had relied on-the water that up until recently they used to water their vegie gardens; the water that many of their animals would drink from-is now off limits. Yet there is still a refusal to undertake health studies, and, again, this lack of support from the Department of Defence is quite extraordinary.

In terms of some of the chemicals that we are talking about here, perfluorinated compounds or PFCs have long been used in firefighting foam, and those were some of the products that had been stored at Williamtown base for a long time. The chemicals include perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate.

Last week when I met these residents, some of them explained how they had only been told about the contamination in September this year. I give emphasis to that point because, when I questioned the Department of Defence representatives at estimates, it came out that they had been aware of the issue of the potential for contamination from these chemicals since 2003.

When you look at the literature, it is in 2002 that the largest manufacturer of the PFOS chemicals, the 3M company, stopped producing them due to environmental and long-term health effects. So: in 2002, the company that produces these stops. In 2002, an OECD hazard assessment found that PFOS is toxic to mammals. In 2003 both PFOA and PFOS were declared emerging contaminants globally.

This is very relevant for when you, Senators, go-and I hope you will; some senators here surely should do that-and visit the people at Williamtown. I understand they might come here in the next couple of days. People should meet them and talk to them. Many of them did not find out until September this year, just a couple of months ago.

But, to continue with the time line: in 2006, the US Environmental Protection Agency began working with eight of the largest perfluorinated compound manufacturers with the goal of achieving a 95 per cent reduction in levels of PFOA in their products and waste. In 2009, PFOS was listed as a persistent organic pollutant under the Stockholm Convention. Australia was one of 160 countries that undertook to join a global effort to eradicate some of the most toxic chemicals known to humankind. Since 2002, Australia's National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme has worked to reduce the importation of some PFCs and has issued six alerts specifically relating to PFOS and PFOA chemicals.

So can you imagine how the locals feel, when it has been documented how serious this is and the world has been alerted to it, and they, still, are largely in the dark about their future? I heard stories of people being told that their property no longer has value. They are not allowed, as I said, to eat local food products. Meanwhile, nobody will entertain giving their children blood tests. There is no commitment to have baseline health studies done to work out what is going on here.

With regard to those six alerts that I mentioned, I understand that none of the locals at the time were informed of those alerts. It is clear that the government has been aware of the potential dangers of PFCs for at least 13 years, and the Department of Defence, from their own admission at the October estimates, nominated the year 2003 as the year when they became aware. After a while, in the estimates, as the questions went along, they said, 'That was in the literature.' Whether it was in the literature or not, they were aware of it then. And 12 years later, in 2015, the locals find out.

CRC CARE, an environmental organisation partnered with the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, notes that PFOS and PFOA are known to enter ecosystems and move up the food chain, accumulating in animal and human tissue, including the liver and blood. A 2007 study noted on CRC CARE's site found that PFCs have been linked to bladder and liver cancer, endrocrine disruption and developmental and reproductive toxicity, including neonatal mortality, and are potentially lethal to animals. Is it little wonder people are angry? Also, we see the passing of the buck between the Defence department and the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority. Again, this adds to the uncertainty of locals.

We must ask why remediation has not been taking place at Williamtown RAAF base. Given how long both state and federal governments have known of the dangers, why has a clean-up operation not been undertaken? We know that Williamtown is the RAAF's premier fighter jet base. We know that most of the new F35A Joint Strike Fighters will be based there. We also know that the base is in the middle of a $1.5 billion upgrade in preparation to host the new jets. Perhaps full disclosure of the contamination problem would have endangered the base's pitch to host the fighters. Perhaps a clean-up of the pollutant would have interfered with the upgrade. These are the questions the community put to me. They have every right to ask them, because state and federal governments have not been forthcoming with the answers and the information. They deserve a response. I think it is telling that the environmental impact statement for this upgrade at Williamtown had no reference to the contamination. It was not covered.

The way the Defence department conducted itself in estimates is very concerning. Contradictory information was given. It is time that the department came clean for the rights of the people of this area. Businesses are suffering. People are very concerned about their children. Surely, the starting point should be full information and a clean-up of that base.

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