House debates

Monday, 3 December 2018


Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Joint Committee; Report

12:34 pm

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the committee's report entitled Inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases.

Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).

by leave—The Senate referred the inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in December 2017. It followed the release of the expert health panel report into the potential human health effects of PFAS exposure, exposure that needed to be minimised as a precaution. This report contains significant recommendations and has a focus on improving the government's response to this issue, particularly in relation to concerns of affected communities that the subcommittee visited.

As a medical practitioner, what really struck me was that the uncertainty around health impacts appeared to have stalled progress towards just resolution of cases for affected residents. As we report in detail, that equity trap that was independent of health impacts could take years or decades to resolve. In the report, we have recommended that a coordinator-general be appointed with the authority and resources necessary to more effectively coordinate the whole-of-government effort in respect of PFAS contamination. A coordinator-general would ensure a clear and consistent approach and also a level of separation in dealings between the Department of Defence and the affected community. It would allow community consultations to occur not just with federal and state governments but also local government.

The committee wanted to see an improvement in voluntary blood testing because this is our key source of longitudinal information—not that the blood tests in and of themselves tell us anything about health outcomes, but they track the important ability of this organic chemical that is persistent by ingestion through the gut for those that have lived in various periods of time in contaminated areas. Obviously the goal is to look for long-term health impacts of exposure to PFAS and the effectiveness of the ways in which we break PFAS exposure pathways. The committee found it was really important to collect this data assiduously, that medical practitioners themselves shouldn't be taking systematic solo flights on who they test and who they don't but that testing should be freely available to that target group and that we work on making that coverage as high as possible.

This important data needs to be connected with international studies that are doing exactly the same thing, because in Australia, in a relative sense, these numbers are quite small to be able to detect, with power and a high level of robust methodology, health impacts that may still be years away from being picked up. These relatively small numbers of tests need to be able to be added into international studies to increase the odds we have a satisfactory sample size to be able to make an assessment of any possible future PFAS contamination health impacts.

The committee also recommended that the soil testing that is done around these affected aquifer areas be more publicly available. There is sensitivity around the impact on property values. There is some concern that testing done on private land should only be added to that database in an opt-in arrangement. But the management area plans that are being developed by the Department of Defence are incredibly important for peace of mind, for people to understand exactly what areas are at risk and over time, because this movement of contaminated aquifer can occur at a particular rate by distance per year that can be measured and, in some cases, predicted.

In many cases what this committee found, as committees before us have found, is that property owners in PFAS contaminated areas have suffered demonstrable and quantifiable financial losses. At this level, like the reports before it, the committee has found a case for compensation. This is not a sequel of the 1997 movie The Castle. What we've seen is that ordinary citizens have been driven to organise, to conduct research and to develop significant expertise to try to understand the long-term, flow-on effects of contamination, of which they are of no part, and they desperately want to be heard. And it should not take years of campaigning at this level, which is incredibly personally draining, before they can have a sense that their concerns are being adequately addressed, particularly in communities where that feeling is experienced as a group.

These people were not speculators. These people were not seeking a quick bit of profit by buying in a smart location. Many of these people that the committee heard from had purchased with the intention of staying forever. They had purchased to enjoy life on acreage. They had purchased to be able to capitally improve for their next generation, for their own family.

Some of these stories are quite graphic. Britt Osborne, if I could name one, made a $400,000 investment in a water park only to discover, weeks before opening, that this had occurred on land that was known to local authorities and Defence as being contaminated. Moving for me personally was a former friend from my own electorate who moved to the contaminated areas around Medowie and who purchased land just six weeks before the news broke, putting all of his wealth into land that he was unable to sell or borrow on to purchase somewhere else.

If you'll excuse the vernacular, Deputy Speaker, there's an expression out there. It says, 'Shit happens to good people.' But this is not something that they should have to bear alone. It is hard to imagine a more frustrating example than having an environmental contaminant leach from next door into your own property and being left to sort it out for yourself. Justice delayed is justice denied. There will be a long period, I suspect, before we understand the full health impacts of PFAS. The reasons for using PFAS couldn't be more critical. This is the fastest possible way of extinguishing fires in air bases to protect the lives of our service personnel and civilians who work on airfields. It's not a throwaway line to say, 'Find a non-PFAS alternative.' We know they're out there, but it can make the difference between life and death.

The management of this product has created challenges, known since the turn of the century. But coming to a point where we're confident enough to be able to find a solution has taken way too long. Adding in the half-life of PFAS—years and years after exposure, it is still detectable in blood and tissue—creates this horrible wait to know whether your choices simply on where you elected to settle down—to rent or buy or to run a business—are going to have an impact on your children.

We cannot answer the health questions today, but what we can see is that, while the strict legal liability of damage may be a very hard case to definitively prove in the absence of health evidence, there is an unequivocal case for the nuisance that has been brought on these properties and the property value implications that have led to what we refer to as the equity trap. That is as clear as day. We have a free market economy where we can turn to not only property sales in areas but also valuers-general around the country who are responsible in those areas for defining falls in property values. The equity trap is quite simple. It's a circumstance where the value in your own asset is so low it's impossible to pay off the loan if you elect to sell. If you are lucky enough to be able to do that, the equity trap means that the bank may not fully recognise the value of your property as equity and part of the LVR to purchase somewhere else. For these reasons, often people are trapped. Even more disturbing is that many asked their family to come and join them, live in paradise and purchase a property nearby. Entire families' wealth is caught in these contaminated areas. Residents deserve an opportunity to pull together a factual basis for what has happened to them and for it to be considered on face value, in good faith and in good time.

The committee found as we visited each of these areas that these properly functioning property markets told a very different story to the experiences of property owners. In many cases, only an open on-market sale will get you that answer. We believe that a combination of professional valuation, market testing and bringing the factual basis of individual complaints in a non-litigated way is an option for moving forward, and we know that there are already over 40 of these cases before the Commonwealth. No family should be trapped on contaminated land. Families shouldn't be prevented from selling because of the effects of a pollutant for which they are not responsible, simply because the polluter is unable to meet their part of the bargain to make that sale possible so that people can be airlifted from the red zone. All of the mental health services and all the social support services aside, if responses had been more timely, as this report notes, there wouldn't be the need for those services.

On behalf of Senator McCarthy, Ms Swanson and Senator Moore—those who went around the country—I'd like to thank and pay tribute to the members of those PFAS affected communities right across the country who made submissions to the inquiry. This is not an easy process. They gave evidence and they have given evidence before. The hearings in Katherine, Williamtown and Oakey gave the subcommittee a very strong feeling about the intensity of emotion that has built up over years as residents sought justice. These communities are hurt and they're angered. Many people didn't come and front the committee when we did visit and we wish we could have heard from them. But the delays and the inadequacies in finding justice have done enormous damage to those living there and their families.

Cleaning up PFAS contamination isn't simple. The technology isn't quite there to cost-effectively remediate contaminated soil. Pumping water out of aquifers is unlikely to be a job that's ever completed—water scrubbed and then returned to the water supply. But I trust that this report honours the efforts of the local residents to bring these issues to us, and also the individual federal officers, in particular Steve Grzeskowiak and ChrisBirrer, who have been part of consultations with each of these affected communities and have worn an enormous amount of emotional frustration from the communities, and rightly so.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is a global treaty which also captures PFOS. The convention requires parties to take measures to eliminate or reduce the release of these pollutants into the environment. The convention was adopted in 2001 and entered into force in 2004. Australia, while a party to the Stockholm convention, which we ratified in 2004, was subject to a declaration by which any amendment to chemicals included would need to be individually ratified, and this is where PFAS falls. Australia is yet to ratify the listing of PFOS or any other chemicals that have been added to the convention.

In October two years ago now, the Department of the Environment and Energy released a regulation impact statement. Many will recall that that pointed out that of the four options presented, ratifying the listing of PFOS under the convention and phasing out all non-essential uses would achieve the greatest reduction at the lowest cost. This consultation closed earlier this year.

PFOA isn't yet listed under the Stockholm convention, but in October 2017 it was recommended that the council of parties to the convention consider the listing of those chemicals. Doing this, of course, requires all states to agree. Two states so far have banned the use of PFAS but the rest are to arrive at a position. That is utterly essential before we can go further.

I thank everyone for their participation and I urge the government to take note of the report.

12:47 pm

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I'd like to briefly speak on this report. I didn't realise I would have the opportunity. I would like to thank the member for Bowman for his chairmanship of this committee and also Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, who acted as our formal deputy chair. I'd like also like to thank the member for Newcastle, the member for Brand, the member for Lingiari, and the people who have participated and are here in the House today for the tabling of this committee report.

I welcome this report and I would urge the government to formally respond as urgently as it can to this report. There is no secret in this House that I have championed my community of Williamtown, who have been to hell and back over this issue, and continue to do so to the current day. This is an issue that has torn at the very fabric of people's lives, not only their investments and money but also their bodies and their families. It really has struck at the heart of their very existence.

I would urge the government to urgently formally respond, and put together a coordinated effort so that we can move forward. I would say to the member for Bowman: thank you for chairing the committee. You were the only member of the government who attended the committee meetings and who attended the hearings. I would say that this government now needs to act with a level of urgency. They need to formally respond to this. They have now had the carriage of this for three years. We need to see this move forward and we need to see an official response from them, because no community, whether it's my community or any other community, should be put through what we have been put through for the last three years.

12:49 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I thank the member for Bowman—not something I often do—and Senator McCarthy for their leadership in this PFAS contamination inquiry. I thank all those who have participated. I also acknowledge the member for Canberra, who has been part of the discussion inside the Labor Party around these issues since the onset of the PFAS debate. I speak here as the member for Lingiari. Lingiari has the Katherine Air Force base in it. The Katherine community have suffered dreadfully as a result of the PFAS contamination.

I think it's important that I acknowledge here that the RAAF personnel on the ground have been extraordinarily good in working with the local communities wherever they are. I know the Tindal CO has been really fantastic in communicating and working with the community. Defence has a huge role in this, as we all know. I note that there's a bit of obfuscation about who wears what responsibility, but let's be very clear about it: Defence have primary responsibility. I want to acknowledge Steve Grzeskowiak, who the member for Bowman mentioned, for his preparedness to work with communities and to explain what he doesn't know as well as what he does know. He's been very open and honest about saying to people: 'We don't know the answer to your question. We just simply don't know.' The member for Bowman made a point about the lack of knowledge around the long-term impacts of PFAS and PFOS.

People who have identified that their property value has fallen through the floor are extremely frustrated. They've seen produce they have grown be affected by these chemicals. That has had an impact on their families. Those of us who have had the great fortune of working with these people and talking with them can identify and empathise with their concerns, but ultimately we—that is, the parliament and the government—have to come up with some solutions to their issues. I note the comments made in the report about whether there should be some process for compensation. I note also that there's further work to be done in this space.

We need to assure people that we will make sure that their water supply is clean and safe. I commend the government for the work they have done on the Katherine water supply, but, nevertheless, we have a real problem with the aquifer and people using water from the aquifer. We have learnt that we didn't know a lot. We are learning a great deal more each time they sink a well in the ground. They can understand what the impact has been. They said that north of the Katherine River this wouldn't be an issue. Well, it turns out it is an issue.

The member for Bowman spoke about blood tests. There were real issues in getting people access to blood tests in the first place. It is important that people understand the impact of this on them and, if they have queries, we try to have them addressed. Those of us who have had an interest in this know that the science is yet to be determined on a great deal of this, as the member for Bowman has said, but people's concerns need to be allayed.

I go back to this report and thank all the members of the committee for their diligence and application, particularly my friend Senator McCarthy, who co-chaired the committee with the member for Bowman. This work has been very important for this parliament. Whilst I acknowledge that other members of the government weren't involved, I do thank the member for Bowman for his participation, diligence and application in coming to a conclusion. If the government is prepared to pick up the recommendations, work with them and respond quickly to the parliament then people will feel a damn sight happier than they do today.

12:54 pm

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the House take note of the report.

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is adjourned. The resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.