Report: Inquiry into PFAS remediation in and around Defence bases

February 05, 2020

by leave—I rise to speak on the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade's report Inquiry into PFAS remediation in and around Defence bases.

I would firstly like to thank the chair of the subcommittee, the member for Groom, and all other members who have played a role in this report, and of course the ongoing and hard work of the secretariat.

This inquiry resonates with me, not only as a member of the committee but as the federal representative in this parliament for the people of Williamtown, Salt Ash and Fullerton Cove, who have been living with this disaster for too long. It will be five years this September since my community learned of PFAS contamination and how their lives would be literally turned upside down by it. But the story starts well before five years ago.

In 1938, a chemist by the name of Dr Roy Plunkett was experimenting with refrigerator coolant by placing various chemicals in small cylinders at dry ice temperatures. When he opened a cylinder expecting to find gas, he instead found a white powder. It was heat resistant and chemically inert, and had such a low surface friction that other substances wouldn't adhere to it. PFAS chemicals were created accidentally, used ubiquitously and marketed slickly. He showed this powder to his employer, American chemical giant DuPont, which then marketed PFAS chemicals as the most slippery substance on earth. They went on to be used in over 3,000 products worldwide, including non-stick cookware, waterproof clothing, camping gear, dental floss and even weapons.

However, it was the use of PFAS in firefighting foams that caused these chemicals to leech into the land that surrounds RAAF bases all over Australia, including in my electorate of Paterson. The properties that made this chemical so popular also made it extremely difficult to expel from the environment and from the blood and body of humans.

This report is the first step into how the Australian government plans to do this. When this inquiry was announced, there was an overwhelming sigh in my community, but it wasn't a sigh of relief. This is the third inquiry around PFAS contamination and this government is still yet to respond to the last report, as the chair has already mentioned. There is still no PFAS policy, and communication between the Liberal government and residents in my community has been inconsistent, unreliable and inconclusive. In the absence of leadership, a class action was formed by residents in Williamtown, Oakey, as the member for Groom has pointed out, and Katherine, and in April it will finally be before the courts. I have pleaded with the Attorney-General to settle this matter outside of court, and I understand that this battle is ongoing. But, regardless, it is a disgrace that it has come to this.

Last year, I welcomed the shadow minister for defence, Richard Marles, to Williamtown, again to meet with residents. It was after that meeting that I started a petition calling on the Prime Minister to visit Williamtown, to meet with residents—and I reiterate that invitation—something both he and the Minister for Defence are yet to do.

Last week, long-term resident and advocate for Williamtown Lindsay Clout penned an article in the Newcastle Herald. He referenced a critically acclaimed Hollywood movie about PFAS contamination in the USA called Dark Waters. It will be released in Australia this month. The film's based on a true story about a law suit against the chemical company responsible for contaminating thousands of people with the forever chemical PFAS. The lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Rob Bilott, highlighted how both government and regulators in the US failed to protect communities against PFAS contamination. He told Time magazine recently:

If we can't get where we need to go to protect people through our regulatory channels, through our legislative process, then unfortunately what we have left is our legal process …

Lindsay Clout, from my electorate, wrote in the Newcastle Herald:

That quote hit … home this week after the shutting down of a $6.7 billion road tunnelling project in Melbourne because workers came across PFAS contaminated soil. That project wasn't halted because a regulator said it couldn't go ahead. It wasn't halted because of legislation. It was instead two of Australia's biggest construction companies who said they were not prepared to put workers at risk. That decision highlights the utter contempt with which both the state and federal government have treated the families in Williamtown—

and across the country—

whose homes and properties are also contaminated.

For more than five years, the federal—

Liberal, coalition—

government has said there's not an issue with PFAS contamination still leaking off the Williamtown airbase. Health and environmental bodies in NSW have given residents confusing and—

at times—

conflicting advice.

Our political leaders and health and environmental regulators have utterly failed PFAS-contaminated communities like Williamtown. And as Rob Bilott says when that happens you have just one option—

the justice system.

I'm proud to be a voice in parliament for these people who I represent, and especially those who the government has abandoned. We will continue to look, via this report process, at what the government is and isn't doing and hopefully get one step closer to justice for the people affected by PFAS contamination.