Thursday, 12 November 2015
Questions without Notice
Defence: Water Supplies
My question is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Payne. I refer the minister to a Newcastle Herald article on 26 October titled 'Toxic truth: Water warning repeated', which details how Defence provided advice in mid-October to local residents that there was nothing in their water supply to be concerned about. Yet, within a week, the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority had reissued warnings about water supplies being contaminated by toxic chemicals thought to have leaked from the nearby RAAF Base Williamtown. Given the seriousness of this public health matter, what steps have you taken to end the contradictory and confusing advice being given to local communities by Defence?
I thank Senator Conroy for the question. The senator would be aware that there are a number of activities occurring in the local area, which include community reference groups and consultation groups, of which Defence is an active member and partner. I convened a meeting—I cannot recall the date exactly, but I will provide that to you on notice—with the New South Wales Minister for the Environment, the Hon. Mark Speakman, perhaps 10 days ago now, which he attended accompanied by the New South Wales Chief Scientist, the New South Wales Chief Medical Officer and a number of other representatives of their government. The Commonwealth was represented by the Department of Defence, me, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, and the Department of Health, I believe. The meeting was to discuss some of the actions that New South Wales had taken with respect to the contamination issues.
The contamination from PFOS and PFOA, which are remnant contaminants, if you like, coming from firefighting foam which was used previously at the Williamtown base, have been an issue in the area for some time, as you indicated. We are trying to work very closely with New South Wales to make sure that advice is consistent. We are engaged with the community through those reference groups and community committees. We are working with both the relevant local members. My staff have briefed both the member for Newcastle and the member for Paterson on these issues, and we continue to work in close association with them and through the defence department.
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Media reports state that the New South Wales EPA and the New South Wales health department were critical of the information that Defence supplied to local residents, suggesting that it failed to spell out risks. Minister, why is Defence failing to adequately communicate risks to local residents and what steps have you taken to ensure that Defence provides accurate and timely information about this serious public health issue?
I do not necessarily agree that Defence is indeed failing to address and spell out those risks. As I said, there have been regular meetings held with the Department of Defence, represented at quite senior levels, to provide information as required. There have been community meetings, which Defence has also attended and is part of. What I do think is important is that we operate within the bounds of the science which we know, the science of which we are aware. Defence has engaged senior toxicology experts and we also have a consultant doctor, Dr Ian Gardner, who has recently departed to Veterans' Affairs but is continuing to work with Defence on these issues because he has quite significant experience in this area.
Those senators from Victoria will know that there is an inquiry underway in Victoria relating to the Country Fire Authority at Fiskville and contamination in that area— (Time expired)
Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Distressed local residents are frustrated with Defence's handling of the problem, with Fullerton Cove grandmother Robyn Jones saying Defence was 'pretty blase about the whole thing'. Minister, what directions have you given to Defence to ensure it takes the concerns of the local community seriously? Who are you holding accountable for Defence's handling of this serious public health issue?
Defence is, as I said, working with those local organisations. It is inevitable that there will be people whose concerns are continuing, and we are trying very hard to work with the appropriate authorities in New South Wales to provide the level of information and the level of reassurance and support that they need. I have, through the assistant minister Darren Chester, made every effort to ensure that the information coming from the defence department is what the community requires, and if concerns have been raised with us then we have endeavoured to provide further information.
But I do want to reinforce that this is actually not a Defence issue. This is an issue, both internationally and nationally, for any body, any authority, that used PFOS and PFOA firefighting foams over extended periods of time—so, the Country Fire Authority in Victoria, and other airport and transport facilities similarly. This will be a matter that has to be explored at both a national and a state level to determine the appropriate levels of response. (Time expired)