Thursday, 3 September 2020
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Joint Committee; Report
[by video link] As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I note that the second progress report of the PFAS Subcommittee has arrived 21 months after the first progress report. The first thing I notice is that the name has changed. The title of the first report referred to management of PFAS contamination. The title of the second report refers to remediation of PFAS contamination. I welcome this change of focus. The time has passed for PFAS to be managed. We are not managing these PFAS contamination plumes; the plumes are out of control. After 60 years of PFAS, the number of contaminated sites is now over 900. Plumes at Oakey, Richmond, Williamtown, Katherine and Townsville are spreading across formerly productive farmland. Residents are having their homes destroyed, and poor medical outcomes for long-term residents are a fact we must own up to, yet the government's response has been more spin than substance.
The first report's recommendation No. 1 called for the creation of the office of a coordinator-general to control the government's PFAS response. That office was never created and it has now disappeared from the second report. In its place is the PFAS Taskforce, which we are told is leading the government's efforts to coordinate a whole-of-government response to PFAS contamination. Is it really? In a meeting with Environment and Defence, I asked for the minutes of the three most recent meetings of the PFAS Taskforce. I wanted to see what this sincere effort to create a whole-of-government response looked like. I was promised those minutes, yet they never arrived. I did a document discovery, and the minutes never arrived. So let me repeat my request: where are the minutes?
The first report's second recommendation was that the government should continue to upscale its investment on the containment of PFAS plumes leaving defence bases. That was perfectly clear. Has that been done? No. Defence had four mini remediation plants before the first report came out. It still has four. All of those are on defence land. There has been no active remediation in the red zones around defence bases. As a result, these plumes are spreading and drawing more and more everyday Australians into this PFAS nightmare.
The first report's third recommendation called on the government to 'review its existing advice in relation to the human health effects of PFAS exposure, including to acknowledge the potential links to certain medical conditions'. In one of my meetings with Defence on PFAS, I asked for the medical science they were relying on for their stated position that residents in red zones were not risking medical conditions provided they did not drink bore water. The studies I received were small-scale studies, frequently offered by DuPont as proof that PFAS is harmless. Scientific integrity is essential to good governance. PFAS compensation and remediation will cost billions and become a major exercise. The decision as to who we should compensate and relocate must be based on good, robust science—not cover-up studies, funded by DuPont, of five cows.
It is for good reason that the new report's recommendation No. 5 calls on the government to use information on PFAS related matters that is factual and cites trusted sources. I wholeheartedly agree.
The first report's fifth recommendation called on the Australian government to assist property owners and businesses in affected areas with compensation, including the possibility of buybacks. Shortly after that report was released, the government chair of the PFAS Subcommittee, Andrew Laming MP, was dumped as chairman. There will be no talk of compensation and buybacks in this government. So imagine my surprise when the second progress report arrived on Tuesday and says the same thing:
The Committee recommends that the Government prioritise assisting property owners and businesses … through compensation for financial losses … including the possibility of buy-backs.
Has this been progressed? No. The government is fighting compensation through the courts. This makes no sense. The government knows it is going to have to pay this money eventually. Why pay it to lawyers instead of affected residents? When all the new science on PFAS is considered, when the litany of medical conditions suffered by residents in the red zones is considered, and when the financial losses stemming from not being able to use their properties are considered, the only fair and decent thing to do is compensation and like-for-like relocation.
I applaud the committee for having the courage to say what must be said. It's time to make this right.
I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.