Senate debates

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Questions without Notice

Defence Facilities: Chemical Contamination

2:46 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I ask the question, I acknowledge the Lord Mayor of Darwin, Kon Vatskalis, who is in the gallery. My question is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Payne. Some residents in Katherine have been told not to drink their water supply due to PFAS contamination originating from RAAF Base Tindal, with water having to be trucked in for residents. When did the minister first become aware that PFAS contamination in Katherine was of such concern that residents would be advised not to drink the water?

2:47 pm

Photo of Marise PayneMarise Payne (NSW, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to acknowledge Senator McCarthy's question and the briefing that Defence has provided to Senator McCarthy on this particular matter. We have a number of investigations under way across Australia—in excess of 18 at this stage. I don't have with me the date on which I was advised in relation to Katherine, but this is a very comprehensive environmental investigation program across the country, as you know. Local communities are advised as the testing is to commence in their particular area and that starts to take place.

In relation to matters concerning water, Defence has worked closely with Northern Territory Power and Water Corporation and the Northern Territory government. In fact, I released a media statement with the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory some time ago in relation to the water treatment plant that was to be provided to the Katherine community to assist with the management of the PFAS contamination. The announcement was made on 9 August this year that we would provide an interim ECT2 water treatment plant to help reduce the amount of PFAS in the Katherine town water supply. That plant arrived in Katherine in late September and is expected to be operational at the end of this month. It's being installed, tested and so on to ensure that it can get that work underway. Its role is to treat PFAS-affected bore water prior to being blended with river water to generate the town water supply. That's obviously particularly relevant in the dry season, as you would be well aware. It will filter PFAS from the bore water before it enters the purification and blending process in the Power and Water Corporation's water treatment plant. It will be capable of processing the majority of bore water currently required for the town water supply. Importantly, the average PFAS levels in the supply remain below the Department of Health guidance values— (Time expired)

2:49 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Williamtown and Oakey residents have been able to access federally funded blood testing to determine PFAS levels in their blood but Katherine residents have not. Minister, why have Katherine residents been left without those health measures offered to other communities affected by PFAS contamination?

Photo of Marise PayneMarise Payne (NSW, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

As I think the senator is aware from her briefing—but, if not, we can augment that—the processes in Williamtown and in Oakey in relation to the human health risk assessment, the ecological risk assessment and the environmental risk assessment were completed, and then assessments were made by the health authorities—not by Defence—in relation to the provision of blood tests. Defence does not hold itself out as a health expert in this matter at all. We take our advice from the Chief Medical Officer and the teams in Health.

I understand the concerns that are there in the community. They're not just there in Katherine, as you know; they're there in Williamtown, and they're there in Oakey. We are working very hard to ensure that we have the broadest possible environmental investigations to provide the information that we need to make those assessments. Once we better understand the extent of the contamination and, most particularly, the exposure pathways in relation to PFAS, then the health experts will be in a better position to consider the expansion of the voluntary blood-testing program. (Time expired)

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McCarthy, a final supplementary question?

2:50 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, when will the Liberal-National government finally provide the Katherine residents—and that is specifically what I'm asking—the same assistance offered to those other communities?

2:51 pm

Photo of Marise PayneMarise Payne (NSW, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

That's what I said. When the health—

Senator McCarthy interjecting

When the data is available, Senator McCarthy. I don't have in front of me the completion date for the Katherine testing, but it has been underway for some months now, so it will probably take, I would have thought, until towards the end of this year for the completion of that. But, when that data is available, the health experts will make the assessment on whether and how, if that is appropriate, blood testing is made available.

It's important to note, I think, that the expansion of the voluntary blood-testing program, the epidemiological study itself, needs to be based on scientific fact and on the scientific evidence that is achieved through the testing process. That is what we are pursuing at the moment, not just in Katherine, frankly, but in a number of other areas, as your counterparts in other chambers also know because their electorates are also impacted. This is a legacy problem, not just for Defence and not just for Australia. It is an enormous undertaking; in fact, I think the largest in the world currently. (Time expired)