Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Questions without Notice
Paterson Electorate: RAAF Base Williamtown
My question is to the Minister for Foreign Affairs representing the Minister for Defence. Will you update the House on what the coalition government is doing to contain the PFOS firefighting chemical contamination at Williamtown RAAF Base? What actions has this government taken so far, and what plans are in place to restore the livelihood and the lifestyle of my constituents affected by the PFOS contamination?
I thank the member for Paterson for his question and I note his concern for his constituents in relation to this matter. I am advised that Defence is taking this issue of contamination at RAAF Base Williamtown very seriously. Surface and groundwater contamination has been detected in and around the base as a result of past use of firefighting chemicals. The products have been used in firefighting for decades in every major military base and civilian airport, not just in Australia but internationally—so this is a worldwide issue, as the member knows.
The land at Williamtown is generally low and flat, and the watertable is very close to the surface—only half a metre down in some places, I am advised—presenting significant challenges to containing these chemicals. Through worldwide and Australian research, it transpires that few effective or viable large-scale remediation techniques—other than incineration of contaminated soil—have been identified. So incineration is an option that Defence is examining, and I am advised that the Minister for Defence met with officials about this in Canberra last week.
I am also advised that Defence is undertaking a range of control measures, including a rigorous testing regime. I know Defence are happy to provide the member with details. For example, to ensure that people have access to safe drinking water, to date Defence have visited 170 properties and tested about 186 private bores, 139 rainwater tanks and 17 swimming pools. I am also advised that the Department of Human Services has processed claims and paid about $155,000 for financial assistance to claimants to date. In addition, the New South Wales government has applied bans on commercial fishing in Fullerton Cove and Upper Tilligerry Creek since September. The federal government has implemented a financial assistance package of up to $25,000 per commercial fisher who derives the majority of their income from those areas. We are working with the New South Wales government in that regard.
There will be a Senate inquiry into this contamination at RAAF Base Williamtown. Defence will continue to work with federal, state and local authorities to appreciate the full scope of this issue at Williamtown and future remediation options. The Senate inquiry will also look at other Commonwealth, state and territory sites. The government fully supports this inquiry and we look forward to Defence's full participation and cooperation with the Senate inquiry. I trust that that answers the member's question.