Thursday, 7 December 2017
Questions without Notice
Defence Facilities: Chemical Contamination
My question is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Payne. This past Tuesday evening, the Department of Defence held another community information centre in Williamtown, New South Wales, to update local residents and business owners about the environmental investigation into PFAS on, and in the vicinity of, the RAAF Base Williamtown. As you should be aware, at that meeting, Defence issued its own map of Williamtown's contamination zone that differed from the map released by the NSW Environment Protection Authority just over a fortnight ago. Defence also issued its own set of precautionary guidelines for Williamtown and surrounding residents that, as it admitted to the Newcastle Herald, were less conservative than guidelines released last month by the New South Wales EPA. Can the minister advise the affected residents and businesses which map and which precautions they should take heed of?
I thank Senator Burston for his question and for some advance notice of that. I certainly recognise the concern that exists in PFAS affected communities, including Williamtown. Having previously visited and met with community members in both Williamtown and Oakey, I am acutely aware of the impacts that these detections have had on those communities that surround the affected bases.
I note the senator's query in relation to maps which have recently been released. On 5 December, Defence held a community information session to present the final environmental site assessment and human health risk assessment reports which built on the findings collected from previous investigation stages. They involved an additional 4,646 samples of groundwater, soil, sediment, surface water, rainwater tanks, pools, fruits, vegetables and aquatic animals—taking the total number of samples in the overall investigation to over 10,000.
The HHRA report included a map that described four risk zones, each with their own precautions, as recommended by Defence's expert consultants. This report was provided to the New South Wales EPA in October. The HHRA followed the NEPM framework for site contamination investigations and included a range of point-in-time sampling and analysis to understand the nature and extent of PFAS contamination as it currently is. Prior to the release by Defence of the final HHRA, the New South Wales EPA then released their own map and associated precautionary health advice. Those authorities determined the need for three management zones and issued precautionary health advice for each of these zones.
Defence provided the HHRA point-in-time sampling data to the New South Wales government in advance of their announcement. It is understood that the New South Wales authorities determined the need for three management zones and issued precautionary health advice to those respective residents based on not only this information but also other information available to them as well as modelling of future possible impacts.
I note that both the government and the Labor Party voted against a motion in this place just a few months back to immediately begin the process of voluntary buybacks for affected residents in the contamination zone. Will the government now reconsider its position on voluntary buybacks, especially in the light of this latest debacle, which is putting residents in even more financial and mental stress, before Christmas?
As I have said in this chamber before, this is a serious legacy issue that affects a range of portfolio areas across the jurisdictions at a Commonwealth, state and territory and local level. The government's been clear that the response to this issue is not a response which can be made in isolation. Today, for example, the New Zealand Defence Force announced that it will be investigating possible contamination at the Ohakea and Woodbourne air bases.
The government, through the PFAS task force within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, is considering a range of options to support affected communities including Williamtown. The impacts of contamination are different for each community that is affected, and it is important that the government is not only responsive to meeting the differing needs of each community but also nationally consistent in its approach. Defence, most importantly, stands ready to do whatever is asked of it by government.
I might say that's not much. If the government is not willing to reconsider its voluntary buyback position, will the government, at the very least, set up a fund similar to the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements to help lighten the extreme financial and mental stress of those living in communities affected by the contamination before people start to die?
I recognise that this is a very difficult situation for those families. This week in Canberra, I have again met with community members and representatives from both Oakey and Katherine who have been in the parliament. As I highlighted in my previous answer, the PFAS task force within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has been tasked to consider a range of options to support affected communities.
For Defence's part, Defence is undertaking the largest program of environmental investigations in Australia's history to get a better understanding of the nature and the extent of the contamination caused by the legacy use of firefighting foams. We've engaged independent, reputable, credible investigators to determine the best way forward. We've shared the findings with state, territory and local authorities and communities, and we're implementing a range of measures which mitigate the impact the contamination is having on the surrounding communities in which Defence operates. I note Senator Burston's specific suggestion, and I will raise that with the relevant task force.