House debates

Wednesday, 5 December 2018


Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Joint Committee; Report

12:33 pm

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

I welcome the report into the government's management of the PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases. This inquiry was incredibly important for me, not only as a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, who conducted the inquiry, but also as the federal member for Paterson and a member of our community, someone who was born and grew up in our area and who knows so many of the people who have been impacted. A special message for those people: thank you so much for your help in formulating the recommendations of this inquiry.

My electorate includes Williamtown, where PFAS has been contaminating the land since the 1970s. It's been found in soil, in groundwater, in seafood, in cattle, in cows' milk, in backyards, in chickens and their eggs, in homegrown vegetables and fruit, and in the blood of people who have been exposed to it over many, many years while living in a property they have invested everything in. Williamtown is also the home of the only red zone across all of the PFAS contaminated sites. Since the chemical was discovered, my constituents have literally been to hell and back. Fishers were forced to stop fishing. Banks stopped lending. Valuers wouldn't even set foot on contaminated land. Property values plummeted. People have been worried sick. They feel stuck. They feel frightened. They feel abandoned by their federal government. All the signs on Cabbage Tree Road attest to that.

Over the past three years, heartbreaking stories have emerged from my community about the real-life impact of this chemical, stories like that of Sam and Jamie Kelly. When their little boy, William, was born, he was found to have significant levels of PFAS in his tiny baby body as a result of living in the contaminated red zone, although he hadn't really lived there for very long, and his parents had done everything that they could possibly do to ensure that he had no exposure pathways whatsoever. It forced the young family to go to the doctor. When they went to the doctor, the doctor said, 'If it was my child, I wouldn't take him home there.' So they made an incredibly difficult decision. After building their 'forever home' as a young couple, to raise their baby boy in, they put their home on the market and rented somewhere else while they continued to pay off their mortgage. But no-one was interested in buying their property. It took a long time, it took a cash sale and it made a big financial impact on their lives. They have received nothing. The Kellys have suffered severe financial loss and heartache during this process. They are not the only ones. They are just one, very heartbreaking example.

This report is intended to provide clarity and direction to the federal government about the effects of PFAS and how to best manage it. Labor pushed for this inquiry. I'm pleased to say that I personally pushed tirelessly to see that this inquiry came to pass. We understood how necessary it was and we pleaded with the then Turnbull government to establish it. This report outlines nine recommendations, including the appointment of a national coordinator-general to coordinate a national response to contamination; measures to improve participation in voluntary blood testing for residents living near or on contaminated land; and the big question of compensation. The first thing I want to emphasise about this report is that the government must act. They must act urgently and formally to announce what they are going to do in response. We desperately need an official response so members of my community can begin to move forward.

The Liberal government have failed every community contaminated by PFAS. In the absence of their own policy, they adopted the PFAS policy Labor took to the 2016 election and butchered it. Communication between government departments and affected residents has been dismal. There is a complete lack of regard for people who have lost the value of everything they've worked their entire lives for. Since the announcement of PFAS in Williamtown, just three years ago, it has been the responsibility of seven different government ministers—seven! Talk about buck-passing. Countless community meetings have been held in Williamtown, but most of them, especially recently, have been held during parliamentary sitting weeks, conveniently preventing me and the responsible ministers from attending. On Monday of this week, a community meeting was held in Williamtown by the Department of Health. I was made aware of this information session by community members. My constituents phoned me and said, 'Hey, Meryl, have you heard about this meeting that the Department of Health are holding?' 'No,' I said. Then I saw an ad in the paper for it, in the classified section, right next to a fridge for sale. Thanks very much for that, Department of Health! That is not how you conduct meaningful consultation in communities. An elected representative should be able to be there. There was no email. There was no letter. There was no other notification of this meeting. That has been what has happened every time with this government. Understandably I was concerned that, as the local federal member, I was not informed that this information session was on or given appropriate information to pass on to my constituents. As parliament was sitting, a member of my staff attended. Like so many of the residents who also attended, she told me the meeting was practically useless or, to quote from the Newcastle Herald story today, 'I would have been better off at home talking to my dog'. Today I've written to the Minister for Health to seek an explanation about this community meeting. Why wasn't I, as the federal representative for the area, informed, and why wasn't reasonable notice given to the community?

As the local member for this area, I have continuously advocated for the people of Williamtown. I stood with them on my first day in parliament. In fact, it's one of the reasons that I even wanted to come to this place. When I made my first speech in the House, I said:

This issue is fresh and real in my mind and my heart. We have made mistakes with tobacco, asbestos and coal dust in the past. We sat idly by thinking everything would be okay. We cannot afford to do that with PFAS.

I made that speech in October 2016. We stand here now in December 2018, and very little has happened. But I stand with my community and I intend to continue to fight for them. We need real leadership on this, not some lame excuse. I wrote to and invited the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to come to my electorate to understand the issue. Once you sit down with the people of my community, you'll have a sense of what they've been through. And can I just say: this has happened to them. They didn't do anything wrong. They didn't choose to do something that might put them in jeopardy. This has happened through no fault of their own. A government department has done this to them, and what are we going to do to right it? I have put blood, sweat and many tears—especially recently—into this.

Labor is currently working on our approach to PFAS contamination, especially in Williamtown. There is no doubt the committee's report is comprehensive. It makes a number of recommendations, each one incredibly important. As this report has been tabled only this week, I'm going to continue to work with my Labor colleagues to consider all of the recommendations outlined, including recommendation 5. Labor will review the recommendations and consider them further after a briefing from the Assistant Minister for Defence. I welcome that briefing, and I again plead with the defence minister and those responsible to do something.

There is no doubt that my focus is on my community, and I want to say thank you to the people who attended the hearings: Janice and Terry Robinson, Sue Walker, John Donahoo, Justin Hamilton, Rhianna and Cain Gorfine, who worked so hard, all of the members of the Coalition Against PFAS, especially the president, Lindsay Clout, all of the members of the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group, the general manager of Port Stephens Council, Wayne Wallis, Brian Byers, Linden Drysdale, David Gaddes, Neville Jelfs, Samantha Kelly, Stephen Kuehn, Des Maslen, Britt Osborne, Susan Peak, Wayne Sampson, Kim Smith, David Vial—and my very good friend and effective state member, Kate Washington, who has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me to take up this fight every day. And Kate and I aren't giving up.

I am advocating for the people of my community. I'm sorry if I left someone off that list. You have all worked tirelessly. I thank you. Do not give up hope. The fight is still on for you.

12:43 pm

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to contribute to the debate on the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report on the inquiry into the management of PFAS contaminations in and around Defence bases across the country, which was released, as we know, on 3 December, a few days ago. First of all, I acknowledge the comments of the former speaker, who is dealing with PFAS contamination in her electorate, as am I in the electorate of Groom, around the Oakey Army Aviation Centre, and other colleagues are elsewhere across the country. It's a very challenging and complex problem that affects Defence bases, which was the focus of this report, but also, as we know, other installations across the broader community where these PFAS contaminants have been used, particularly in firefighting foams at Defence and non-Defence airports and similar facilities.

First and foremost, the primary concern for me—and, I have no doubt, for all members of the House—is the health impacts on residents, constituents, in our various electorates. I focus upon the fact, because it's my primary concern, that the advice from relevant authorities, the advice referred to in this report, is that there continues to be, at this stage, no consistent evidence that PFAS chemicals are harmful to human health. But the report, along with other recommendations in previous inquiry reports, reminds us that there are recommendations that that advice continue to be monitored.

Beyond that, there is certainly the impact on the livelihoods of people affected and on property values, as we've heard. It extends through to mental health challenges—stress, if you like; pressures for people who are simply concerned about their properties and the property value. For some that is a property that they may have purchased prior to knowing of this PFAS contamination, and they are now unable to continue with the building of a house or other facilities because the banks are unable or unwilling to provide them with finance. At the other end of the spectrum are those who are simply wanting to move on with their lives—perhaps, as is the case with a number of constituents in Oakey, moving into an aged-care facility. They want to sell their home and use that value to fund their way into an aged-care facility but are equally stuck, for want of a better term, waiting for an outcome before they can move on with their lives. This is a tremendously challenging issue right across the country.

I want to talk briefly about the background of government action to date and then specifically come back to the recommendations in this report. I'm hoping the report will prompt quicker action than we have seen—particularly in the compensation discussion, which may or may not involve, for example, land buybacks or other forms of compensation—and also address some of the other recommendations. I want to acknowledge that the government previously established the PFAS Taskforce. That is nowadays located within the Department of the Environment and Energy. Previously it was in the Prime Minister's office. There's been the investment of $55.2 million for a drinking-water program. That has certainly provided support in the town in my electorate that's affected, Oakey, which a beautiful town that was the centre of my life in my younger years, given I was raised on a farm at Jondaryan, not far from Oakey. There's $17.9 million from the Department of the Environment and Energy to continue the commitment to respond to contamination issues from an environmental perspective. There is money that has been allocated and invested in affected communities, including Oakey, to reduce exposure, manage those environmental impacts and provide additional mental health and counselling services, which I see as critical. There's access to voluntary blood testing, which has not necessarily been taken up by all, and an epidemiological study to assist in further research on PFAS contamination issues. There's $12.5 million for a national research program looking into the human health effects of prolonged exposure to PFAS and of course $13 million for a PFAS remediation research program to look at the clean-up technologies—water and soil treatment—and how we might investigate and continue that clean-up, right through to some sort of resolution that suits each affected community.

I could speak at length about how that has played out in the Oakey community itself and on the Army aviation base—Swartz Barracks—particularly with the drains, which have been in place for many decades and run through and off the base into local drainage systems. That work continues, taking off the top layer through these drains on the base itself, whilst other research is conducted in terms of the impacts of PFAS. A lot of this, while not necessarily any consolation for those with properties on the front line of the impact, does emphasise the fact that at least Australia is leading the charge in terms of international research on PFAS chemical contamination issues. But we certainly have a long way to go.

With that quick background about government response over the last couple of years that I've been involved directly in debate while I've been the member for Groom, to come back to the recommendations of the report, I can perhaps just draw together some threads about where we're at at this stage and more particularly about where we need to go to resolve some outstanding issues. There are nine recommendations. The first is essentially, by way of summary, about focusing on coordination. I endorse this very strongly. In my case, it involves Toowoomba Regional Council, relevant Queensland state government departments, particularly health, and of course the relevant Commonwealth departments, keeping in mind that Defence itself is not a health department, so it does need to seek that advice and has continued to do so. Can coordination between the three levels of government and between departments be continually improved? Absolutely. I am encouraging that as best I can. That recommendation also talks about ongoing monitoring. As I mentioned, the government response has been about monitoring. This recommendation says we must continue that, and I acknowledge that recommendation. Of course the government is considering its response to all of these recommendations, but I am very keen to provide a local perspective.

The second one talks about continuing and upscaling containment and remediation activities, such as those on the base that I've talked about. The third talks about reviewing medical advice. Again, the advice at this stage is that there is no proven link between PFAS and human health impacts, but it is appropriate that we continue to review that advice. Recommendation 4 is to improve access to voluntary blood testing. It's in place already, but we need to promote that and provide that to those who are interested.

I will jump down to recommendation 7, talking about banning PFAS. It is obviously not used on bases nowadays in general terms, but we need to ensure that it's not only been banned there but right across the community. Recommendation 8 is about Stockholm listings. Recommendation 9, reviewing the environmental regulation of Commonwealth lands, is obviously another outcome which I think makes logical sense. Again, it's up to the ministers to respond on behalf of the government. As a local member and member of the government, I am keen to pursue those sorts of issues.

I deliberately left recommendations 5 and 6 to come back to. Recommendation 6 talks about financial counselling. I've mentioned that mental health counselling services are being provided. We can ramp up financial counselling where needed. I can see the sense in that. Lastly, recommendation 5 talks about compensation in a tailored way to individual circumstances. I think this is an important point. No two properties are the same. No two affected landholders are in the same situation. Some are close, some are further away, some are residential, some agricultural. Therefore I recognise that while class actions are under way—and people are entitled to participate in those—there are others who are dealing directly with Defence to look at a tailored solution for them. I endorse those activities. I'm glad people are taking up those opportunities. I very much look forward to the government's response to this report's recommendations.

12:53 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am delighted to rise today to speak on this report before the Chamber of the inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases. This has been a very long journey for both the PFAS affected communities across Australia and this parliament. This is the third inquiry into PFAS contamination. I will come to that. How this parliament and the government responds is now of critical importance. I was representing the people of Williamtown and surrounds when this diabolical issue broke. I remember being here in parliament, waking up to a front page of The Newcastle Herald informing me of this toxic plume in Williamtown and surrounds. There was a very hurried meeting that was generated by the community at the Stockton RSL club at the time. Hundreds and hundreds of people turned up. Regretfully, parliament was sitting, so I wasn't present at that very first meeting, but, of course, I have, for many, many years since, been engaged with this issue—and my friend and colleague the member for Paterson has, subsequently, been a strong champion and advocate here in the Australian parliament for those communities in our region.

I thank the secretariat and all the members who participated in the inquiry. It was a tough inquiry. People have been traumatised and deeply impacted by this contamination and, through no fault of their own, have woken up to circumstances that anyone would find pretty horrendous. When this inquiry was announced, as I mentioned earlier, this was to be the third parliamentary inquiry into the issue, and I know that people in my area and, I suspect, people in other parts of Australia, approached it with an understandably healthy dose of scepticism. They thought, 'Well, we've been here and done this before. Let's hope that something good can come out of this report.'

I have to say that I think that this bipartisan report is an absolutely terrific outcome. It charts a viable pathway forward with some really important recommendations. Indeed, I welcome all nine of the recommendations. The committee recommended that there be a dedicated person, accountable to the Australian parliament, to coordinate a national response to PFAS. That is a critical recommendation. One of the greatest criticisms we heard was that people were having to deal with all sorts of different departments and all different levels of jurisdiction and no-one was really taking responsibility and being that necessary accountable person, which is so critical.

The continued investment into the containment of PFAS plumes and the remediation of contaminated land and water sources is, again, critical when you have a situation like at Williamtown, where this toxic chemical continues to leave the base. Here we are three years down the track and we have not been able to contain that plume. So, clearly, there is more work to be done and more investments to be put towards that. The committee also recommended improvements around the blood-testing regime. Whilst there is still science and research being undertaken in the area of health impacts, there are some known associations that we are beginning to see.

I believe those recommendations will go some way towards helping to alleviate the mental anguish experienced by people who have, through no fault of their own, found themselves trapped in a contaminated space with nowhere to go. They can't sell or move, with the asset becoming rendered worthless, in many cases. There is also burden of guilt that so many people are living with because they just don't know whether they should stay there with their kids, what they are doing there and what the impact is going to be for their grandkids.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12:58 to 16:00

Prior to the division, I was referring to the nine recommendations that were put forward in this report—and I will try to come back to some of those in a little while. I want to put on the record my sincere thanks to all of the members of PFAS affected communities across Australia who made written submissions to this inquiry or took the time to appear personally to share their lived experience, which was often deeply troubling and sometimes quite traumatic. So I really do pay my respects to those people in Williamtown, Katherine and Oakey who gave the committee a very real and tangible experience of what their lives were like due to the impact of PFAS.

The committee made nine recommendations. As I mentioned earlier, this is a terrific foundation for moving forward on this issue. Of course, the real game-changer in amongst those recommendations is the one that calls for compensation of financial losses—demonstrably quantifiable losses—including the possibility of buybacks. That is something that a number of really increasingly desperate people in some of these affected communities have been pleading for us to consider for a number of years. It was made very evident to me that, whatever recommendations were to come forward from this report, they needed to be flexible. They needed to enable people to make choices, because we have people living in slightly different circumstances—people who may wish to sever all ties and relocate somewhere; and other people who have very longstanding networks in those communities and want to remain but want to ensure that they can do so in a safe way. It's very pleasing that this report has actually put on the table some options that government should consider to make that compensation for financial losses more meaningful for everyone affected. There isn't much time to go through in great detail each of those nine recommendations but I would refer interested people to them.

There is a class action underway and will run its course. Nothing that we have put in this report would get in the way of that, but, in the meantime, people are relying on the government to act. As I said, for the people of Williamtown, it has been more than three years of living in the gravest of circumstances, feeling that they are in limbo, not knowing what the future holds and feeling that they can't leave. Some people feel they can't stay, and yet they're imprisoned on land that they feel is toxic. In the face of such distressing hardship, it is important that we acknowledge the resilience of those communities, because at no point have those residents ever stopped advocating for what they know should be a just outcome for those communities.

Now the government really just has to step up, back the people in and respond to this report, urgently. We cannot kick the can down the road. There is no excuse for inaction. We can't be waiting for elections to come and go. It's a long-term responsibility of the Australian government, regardless of who is in government. People living in PFAS-affected communities should not have to wait for an election to get a just outcome in their lives.

4:05 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to thank the people who contributed to or appeared before the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in the investigation into this PFAS issue, and I rise to discuss some of the recommendations in and issues surrounding this report and how it affects my community in Macquarie. The committee's report is comprehensive and makes a number of recommendations that Labor will certainly review, consider further and request further briefings on so that we can really fill out the picture of what is going on in these sites around the country.

The report is particularly timely for my electorate of Macquarie as to the impact of PFAS contamination on people who live around the Richmond RAAF base. Earlier this year, we learnt that there's a 10-kilometre-square plume of PFAS-contaminated groundwater that sits below and spreads beyond the Richmond RAAF base area. All the major on-site drainage systems were found to contain levels of PFAS above the recommended level for drinking. There were also high levels in tributaries to Rickabys Creek and Bakers Lagoon, and levels above safe drinking levels are going into the Hawkesbury River. This is the first tangible detail that we have had on the contamination, even though it was initially publicly flagged in 2016. For two years I have been critical of the delay in getting meaningful testing of all the bores, the soil and the water bodies in the surrounding areas, and I have to say: the testing remains a very slow process.

As the reality of the PFAS-contaminated soil has dawned on the local community, the failure of this government's response has become very clear. It shouldn't have needed this inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to precipitate action. But I hope it does precipitate action, because the recommendations in this report go to the heart of the poor response so far on this issue.

Recently, close to a hundred Hawkesbury locals attended a briefing by Defence on the latest findings of the testing, but, unfortunately, they were left with more questions than answers. Some are finally receiving testing, after a lot of asking. But it should have happened before now.

I think the efforts of East Richmond resident Joanna Pickford have had a big role in the progress that we've seen. Joanna found out that there was likely PFAS contamination on her property and, as the testing evolved and the results came in, she was advised not to eat her home-grown eggs from her three chooks. This was pretty confronting for somebody who had been feeding those eggs to her grandkids for a really long time. Joanna is furious at the lack of information, even now, and the lack of action, as are Alistair and Kellie, who raise cattle in the Hawkesbury, including on land alongside the Richmond RAAF base. Their requests are very reasonable. They want to be personally tested, without having to spend $3,000. They currently don't qualify because they don't live on that property, yet they're on that property all the time, looking after their cattle. It just should be a given. I note that this report recommends that efforts should be made to improve participation in blood testing and notes the potential value of the tests to monitor the effectiveness of measures being taken to reduce the pathways of PFAS exposure.

Kellie and Alistair would like the contaminated water to be fenced off from their stock. Again, how reasonable is that? They'd like to have better information via blood testing on their livestock so they can see what, if any, the PFAS levels are. Like them, I struggle to see why this isn't a sensible thing to do given that it's happened for Oakey, Albatross, East Sale and Tindal. I can't see why Richmond shouldn't qualify for that as well. Kellie and Alistair want a lot more information about the possible impact on their cattle. And that's the big thing—it's a question mark; it's a possible impact. They are also frustrated by the general mixed messages they've received—one piece of advice from a food scientist and different recommendations from Defence. It is really confusing for people on the ground. They can't understand why agencies aren't working together. My reading of this report suggests that the committee can't either. Recently, testers authorised by the defence department came to their farm to repeat tests that the New South Wales EPA had already done. The lack of coordination is staggering.

Labor has led the way when it comes to standing up for communities affected by PFAS contamination and pushed the government to establish this inquiry. Alongside my shadow ministers, I want to make reference in particular to the member for Paterson, who has fought for a fair go for her community. The report has identified that there needs to be leadership to drive effective, transparent and consistent responses to PFAS contamination across the country. This is something that obviously needs to work across portfolios and across state, territory and local jurisdictions so that there is less confusion about the problem and the response, as has been recommended by this report.

There is absolutely a need for my local community in and around the Richmond RAAF Base to have a single point of contact. It's needed not just for the people who currently live here but for people who have lived here in the past and those who've worked on the base. One of the recommendations of this committee report is to upscale the investment in the containment of PFAS and remediate contaminated land and water sources. That is certainly what the residents who live near the RAAF base in Richmond would like to see. For months and months, there has been a contaminated pile of soil secured with tarps sitting at one end of the base, close to homes and a road. To date there has been no plan to remove it or remediate it. It should not be left to the base to find a solution on their own. They need the same support that other bases across the country need. They need experts to be guiding and advising them. And the community deserves to see that soil removed now.

I note that one of the recommendations of this report is that the government 'continue to engage with international stakeholders, including past manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, to ensure best practice approaches are taken'. There should be an effort made to speak with former employees of the manufacturers in Australia, like Mike Clifford, who lives in my electorate and worked at the 3M production site in Western Sydney where this chemical was made. This report tells us that, in May 2000, the 3M company, reportedly the largest worldwide producer of PFOS, announced a voluntary phase-out of PFOS in light of emerging scientific evidence about its persistence in the environment. For 20 years Mike worked there, like all employees, oblivious to the potential that the product they were making might have health and environmental effects. Mike recounts a story where he was speaking with one of the staff who cleaned out the tanks where the PFAS was made. The employee remarked to him that, if he wanted to kill some weeds in his garden, this stuff was the stuff to use, and he could happily supply it to him for his garden.

These are the sorts of stories and insights that we need to be gathering into a single place to get a really good picture. We also need to listen to the experiences of firefighters, many of whom feel that they have not had the support they need to deal with the PFAS contamination they may have been exposed to. People like Mike Clifford are keen to share their knowledge. He has provided it to the New South Wales EPA, but they have as yet done no follow-up nor asked him for additional detail. He is a resource that we should be accessing. I'm sure that there are many other people with useful and meaningful information. Every fire captain or former fire captain of a Rural Fire Service brigade in the Blue Mountains can probably tell you where in the bush the exercises using this chemical were done. There is a lot of local knowledge about the practices of and locations where PFAS was used, whether the dregs were dumped and where there's a need to have an understanding of all those non-Defence contaminated sites.

I return to the issue of my local producers—a relatively small number of people around the Richmond base—and also to the local residents who raise their chooks on the land. There is without a doubt a level of concern. The only way to deal effectively with that concern is by turning uncertainty into certainty. The only way to do that is through science. This is where testing is so important. It's not until the full facts are known that we'll have any idea of what we're dealing with at Richmond. Getting to this point of knowledge has taken way too long, and I know we wouldn't even be anywhere near where we are were it not for Labor. People are relying on government to do the right thing on what is undeniably an extremely difficult issue. I look forward to the government's response to this report and its recommendations.

4:15 pm

Photo of Cathy O'TooleCathy O'Toole (Herbert, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases. The report certainly has been long awaited and welcomed by my community. My community, like others in the country, has recorded levels of substances linked to PFAS legacy firefighting foams containing PFOS and PFOA. Those are the active ingredients in the firefighting foam that was once used extensively worldwide and in Australia, including on Defence bases, due to their effectiveness in fighting liquid-fuel fires. In Townsville, this has impacted on Lavarack Barracks, the area around Lavarack Barracks, RAAF Base Townsville and the communities around the RAAF base. PFAS contains a group of chemicals that have actually been used for decades in firefighting. It is highly effective, but we now need to do something about the impact that this may have on communities.

In 2004, Defence commenced phasing out its use of legacy firefighting foam containing PFOS and PFOA as active ingredients and transitioned to a more environmentally safe and friendly product. The release of PFAS into the environment has become a concern because we have learned that these chemicals can persist in humans, animals, the environment and water. In my electorate of Herbert, it does not appear that we have PFOS contamination in our drinking water, which is a very positive outcome for our community. That is not to say that PFOS will not be found in bores and houses around the bases.

In March 2017, the Department of Defence commenced a detailed environmental investigation into the prevalence of PFAS at and in the vicinity of RAAF Base Townsville. In October 2017, Defence extended their detailed environmental investigation into the prevalence of PFAS at and in the vicinity of Lavarack Barracks. Labor welcomes these investigations as the results from the investigations will be provided around the same time, which will reduce the possibility of uncertainty for residents in my community. The objective of these environmental investigations is to identify the nature and extent of PFAS in the local environment as a result of the use of this legacy firefighting foam at both of those bases in my community. There were three stages to these investigations, which included a preliminary site investigation, a detailed site investigation and a human health and ecological risk assessment. The final stage in my community will be conducted pending the findings of the detailed site investigation.

Townsville is the largest garrison city in the nation. My community values the social and economic contribution that our current and ex-serving members, our veterans and their families make in our community and in the broader region. I am very well aware of the numerous community consultation briefings that the Department of Defence has held in my community. I have attended as many of these consultation meetings as possible and, where I have not been able to attend, I've ensured that someone from my office has been there to listen to the issues raised by community members. I thank the people in my community who took time out to attend these hearings and express their views. The ongoing effort of the Department of Defence to keep the residents of Townsville updated must be commended, and I thank the first assistant secretary for infrastructure, Chris Birrer, for his involvement with these walk-in sessions.

I've listened to members of my community who are widely concerned about the impacts of PFAS. In 2016 and 2017, I joined Townsville resident Norm on a PFAS tour around identified areas of concern. Norm has called Townsville his home for many years, and he is an avid and keen birdwatcher. He has conducted his own research in the local environment and on the potential impacts on our birdlife and other natural assets. He told me, from his years of birdwatching, that the number of birds has fallen and that there have been significant changes to the environment. The people in my community are well-connected to our natural environment and resources. Like any close community, we are concerned about the impact of PFAS on our natural resources. Norm's local knowledge and diligence has been most helpful, not only to me and my office but also to the Department of Defence, and his submission to the joint standing committee clearly demonstrated his knowledge in this area.

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report on the management of PFAS contaminations around Defence bases was released yesterday, and I'm eagerly awaiting the government's response to how the recommendations listed in this report will be addressed. Labor has led the way when it comes to standing up for communities affected by PFAS contamination, and it was Labor that pushed the government to establish this inquiry. I note the committee's comments in their report that highlight the importance of developing and implementing a national environmental management plan. Importantly, this will provide nationally consistent standards to guide the ongoing development of policies across a range of agencies at all levels of government.

The committee's report is comprehensive and makes a number of recommendations, which Labor will review and consider further after the assistant defence minister briefs the shadow defence minister. I have followed this investigation closely to ensure that my community is kept aware of the situation regarding PFAS. This is an issue that the federal government must continue to take seriously in order to ensure that we achieve the very best outcomes for all affected regions in our community. The federal government must take action to implement the recommendations of this report for the benefit of all people in our community—and, across communities in this country, the impact is quite different and diverse.

4:22 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to thank the member for Bowman and our NT senator, Malarndirri McCarthy, for their work on this important inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination, an issue that has affected and continues to affect my electorate of Solomon. I also want to acknowledge and thank all those who attended the various hearings of the inquiry and gave evidence, including, of course, the families, organisations and individuals from the Northern Territory and from my electorate of Solomon. I'm proud that Labor has led the way when it comes to standing up for communities affected by PFAS contamination, and I acknowledge all the members who are fighting for their communities. I particularly want to mention the members for Lingiari, Paterson, Newcastle, Herbert, Blair, Macquarie—and other members—as well as the unions representing the firefighters who have been exposed to these chemicals over many years. I want to acknowledge Peter Marshall from the United Firefighters Union, representing our airport firies in my electorate, Erina Early from United Voice, and all the other unions around the country that are representing firefighters.

The NT senator Malarndirri McCarthy has been working alongside the local member of the legislative assembly in the NT, Sandra Nelson, who has been advocating very strongly for her community of Katherine, which is where the Tindal Air Force base is. So I want to acknowledge Sandra and also the Katherine mayor, Fay Miller, who has also been taking up the fight and really advocating hard to the federal government.

The electorate that I represent, Solomon, incorporates the Darwin RAAF Base, so PFAS and PFOA contamination has become an issue for us. The waterways coming off the Darwin RAAF Base, right in the centre of Darwin there, in particular Rapid Creek and Ludmilla Creek but also Sadgroves Creek—there's been testing throughout those creeks. The investigation area, where flow has come off that RAAF base, extends from down in Bayview and Stuart Park all the way around the coast to Millner and the suburb of Rapid Creek, where the beautiful Rapid Creek spills out into Darwin Harbour. That area of land covers a massive swathe of my electorate and, although our test results are better—that is, less contamination—than, say, the city of Katherine, near the Tindal air base, there was still PFAS detected in our waterways, soils and seafood. They're small amounts but still something that we take seriously.

Rapid Creek and Ludmilla Creek in particular have long been popular spots with locals for fishing and swimming. Because Rapid Creek is quite close to the airport, there have been Aboriginal Territorians who have camped in the bush by Rapid Creek for decades, just a stone's throw from the airport, and have drunk that water, living right there on the creek. So I was very keen to get the word out, right from the outset, when we found out about the PFAS, when the Department of Defence reported the issue. As members would know, it was known about for some time before that, which is unfortunate, but we are where we are. But when I became aware of this, I talked to the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal community and made sure that warnings were given to people living along that creek as soon as possible and also to the men, women, kids and families who had been fishing in those creeks. So the warnings went out, and the testing regime started.

I want to acknowledge the work of the NT government, whose departments got to work making sure that testing regimes were put in place, and I want to acknowledge those members of the Darwin community for their vigilance on this issue and their advocacy in making sure that we not only got the testing done but that we got action. Through them and through our advocacy, we got this report, which has meant that we've got some good recommendations to move forward with.

Defence, from my point of view, did pretty well. There were information stands at big events. There were evening information sessions. Once I put the commander of our RAAF base in touch with the Aboriginal community, they acted quite quickly to establish contact and make sure that the Aboriginal organisation in my electorate got information out to those who were staying along the creek. That was done pretty quickly. It's a credit to those organisations, and it's actually increased the contact and communication between those two important organisations for our city.

Obviously, not everyone can be reached through traditional media. That's why it was important for people to get out onto the ground, talk with people face to face, give the latest information and answer questions. So I do want to acknowledge that work from Defence. I did hear from one of the other members that the information about some of these sessions may not have been made available as widely as possible in other electorates. That is obviously something that they must continue to work on. But my experience has been that they've been generally very open and honest about their work with the community.

The committee's report is comprehensive and makes a number of recommendations. I want to once more commend the work of the NT senator my friend Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and all those other members whose electorates are affected.

Finally, I want to echo the advice I've given in the past to members of my electorate about what is a goer and what is not a goer in terms of fishing and collecting shellfish in my electorate of Solomon. For fishing in Darwin creeks, there has been PFAS detected—albeit small. So people in Darwin—around Rapid Creek and Ludmilla Creek, in particular—should continue to avoid catching and eating freshwater fish from Rapid Creek. However, normal serves—two a week—of our wonderful seafood, prawns and crab can still continue to be eaten from those waterways. So it is good news that our constituents can continue to do what they have done for a long time, and that's eat shellfish out of the estuary side of these creeks. But, again, avoid fish from the freshwater end because, without the cleansing of our beautiful Darwin Harbour, they continue to be too much of a risk.

I want to finally acknowledge everyone who is working so hard on this very difficult issue. I do feel for those electorates that this really serious issue of PFAS contamination has affected and wish those communities all the best. We will continue to make sure that the people of Darwin and Palmerston have the best possible information.

4:32 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to commend those involved in the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade's report Inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases November 2018 and to put on the record some of the things that are happening in the electorate of Lalor around both the Laverton and Point Cook RAAF bases.

I attended a community information session at RAAF Base Williams at Laverton on 9 August 2018. That night, I listened carefully to the presentations that were given, and I raised some issues that I thought were pertinent with those responsible. One of those is that the Laverton base is unique in that we are in a situation where Defence have divested part of the asset—the runway that is now the built environment suburb called Williams Landing. This is a unique situation in Australia. It's particularly pertinent around PFAS investigation and ensuring that we identify all the possible sites that could have been used as firegrounds and training in the history of RAAF Base Williams at Laverton. I spoke to the developer of Williams Landing, Cedar Woods, on 17 August about progress and community consultation. I have heard from some members of the community that they have now received some information in their letterboxes about the PFAS contamination processes. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the second consultation because I was busy with other things, but I have since written to Mr Luke McLeod, the assistant secretary of the PFAS investigation and management branch, putting in writing some questions that I need to have answered and that the community need to have answered about where they are in terms of identifying sites, particularly those that are off the current RAAF base site.

This is unique in another way, and that is that, in terms of local government areas, the current RAAF Base Laverton site is the border for—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 16:35 to 16:43

The RAAF base at Laverton, as it exists now, sits solely in the Hobsons Bay local government area, while Williams Landing, which is the suburb built on the divested asset, sits wholly in the Wyndham local government area. That makes this all the more complex but all the more important that, when Defence are dealing with these issues, they are speaking to both local governments and including both communities—those who sit beside the Laverton base and those who sit in the Wyndham LGA in Williams Landing. I'd also make the comment that, while Julia Gillard was still the member for Lawler, the Point Cook RAAF base underwent heavy clean-up for contaminated soil, but it would still be worth it for Defence to make a statement or do some surveys to give the community surety that all of the PFAS was cleaned up in that clean-up.

Debate adjourned.