House debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019


Paterson Electorate: Chemical Contamination

4:48 pm

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

The front page of the Port Stephens Examinertoday reads: 'Ignored, abandoned'. Journalist Charlie Elias accurately describes how residents living in PFAS affected areas feel, especially those living in Williamtown, Salt Ash and Fullerton Cove, in my electorate.

I've stood in this House on more than 20 occasions and spoken about PFAS contamination. I've read letters and delivered messages directly from people who have been impacted by this. I have implored Prime Ministers—many of them—to come to my electorate. I have read reports and studies and I have given my two bob's worth on how the government has handled this fiasco. I've invited Prime Ministers and ministers to my office and my community, and my community have invited them into their homes. Most of the time they have been denied.

Today I want to tell you about the history of this. Legacy firefighting foams containing perfluorinated chemicals were used extensively in Australia from the 1970s due to their effectiveness in extinguishing liquid fuel fires. Concerns later emerged about the potential environmental and human health impacts of these chemicals.

In 2004, Defence began phasing out the use of legacy firefighting foams containing PFOS and PFOA, two of the active chemical ingredients. In 2012, investigations began at RAAF Base Williamtown into the extent of PFAS contamination on and around the base, and into the effects on the environment and on the humans who live around that area. The community was completely naive to these investigations. On 4 September 2015, people who were living by the RAAF Base Williamtown learnt they were potentially living on contaminated land and drinking contaminated water when they read the front page of their paper, the Newcastle Herald. At the time, they didn't know what the contamination meant for their health, their property or their future, but they knew that the government elected to serve them had to do something and that it had failed them. They were told to stop eating the food from their vegetable gardens, stop eating the eggs their chickens produced, stop drinking the water that their tanks held, stop running the businesses that they'd built, stop fishing in their waterways. A line was drawn on a map with a red pen, and, from then on, it was known as 'the red zone'. These days, the government like to call it 'the primary management zone'. Call it what you want, because 2,000 people in my electorate still call it home.

It's been four years since those investigations in Williamtown began, and the community has received little comfort and very few answers. After I asked the Valuer General of New South Wales to do an assessment of property values, they concluded the land value alone had dropped by 15 per cent—although anecdotal evidence was that it was much higher—while comparable properties and neighbouring properties had increased by 30 per cent, which meant a 45 per cent real decrease in affected properties.

There is no internationally agreed safe level of PFAS chemical in human blood. That, we know. The studies from around the world about the health effects of PFAS contamination are inconsistent or inconclusive. Surely, the precautionary principle to protect human health should abide. More than 50 people have died of various types of cancer on a five-kilometre stretch of rural road now known as 'cancer tree road' rather than Cabbage Tree Road. The government says this is a coincidence. I say: prove it.

Over the years, we've had two inquiries, one by the Senate and one by a House committee. I sat on the last one. But it didn't take me sitting on it for those people in that committee to realise that our people have been terribly affected. It's been more than 12 months since that last inquiry. The government has failed to respond to it, with the minister saying that it had been handed to another department and it wasn't finalised yet. How long does this take? This month, the Williamtown community lost its reference group and the elected reference group is long gone. I say to this Prime Minister: these people feel forgotten. I say to the Attorney-General: instruct the government lawyers to settle the class actions, look the people of Williamtown in the eye and please come to their aid.