Statement on the Inquiry into the Government’s Handling of PFAS Contamination in and around Defence Sites

December 03, 2018

I welcome the report into the government's management of the PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases. This inquiry was incredibly important for me, not only as a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade who conducted the inquiry, but also as the Federal Member for Paterson, and a member of our community. Someone who was born and grew up in our area and who knows so many of the people who have been impacted.

A special message for those people: thank you so much for your help in formulating the recommendations of this inquiry.

My electorate includes Williamtown, where PFAS has been contaminating the land since the 1970s. It's been found in soil, in groundwater, in seafood, in cattle, in cows' milk, in back yards, in chickens and their eggs, in home grown vegetables and fruit and in the blood of people who have been exposed to it over many, many years while living in a property they have invested everything in.

Williamtown is also the home of the only red zone across all of the PFAS contaminated sites. Since the chemical was discovered, my constituents have literally been to hell and back.

Fishers were forced to stop fishing. Banks stopped lending. Valuers wouldn't even set foot on contaminated land. Property values plummeted. People have been worried sick. They feel stuck. They feel frightened. They feel abandoned by their federal government. All the signs on Cabbage Tree Road attest to that.

Over the past three years, heartbreaking stories have emerged from my community about the real-life impact of this chemical.

Stories like that of Sam and Jamie Kelly. When their little boy, William, was born, he was found to have significant levels of PFAS in his tiny baby body as a result of living in the contaminated red zone, although he hadn't really lived there for very long, and his parents had done everything that they could possibly do to ensure that he had no exposure pathways whatsoever. It forced the young family to go to the doctor. When they went to the doctor, the doctor said, 'If it was my child, I wouldn't take him home there.' So they made an incredibly difficult decision. After building their 'forever home' as a young couple to raise their baby boy in, they put their home on the market and rented somewhere else while they continued to pay off their mortgage. But no-one was interested in buying their property. It took a long time, it took a cash sale and it made a big financial impact on their lives. They have received nothing.

The Kellys have suffered severe financial loss and heartache during this process. They are not the only ones. They are just one, very heartbreaking example.

This report is intended to provide clarity and direction to the federal government about the effects of PFAS and how to best manage it. Labor pushed for this inquiry. I'm pleased to say that I personally pushed tirelessly to see that this inquiry came to pass. We understood how necessary it was and we pleaded with the then-Turnbull Government to establish it.

This report outlines nine recommendations, including the appointment of a national coordinator-general to coordinate a national response to contamination; measures to improve participation in voluntary blood testing for residents living near or on contaminated land; and the big question of compensation.

The  first thing I want to emphasise about this report is that the government must act. They must act urgently and formally to announce what they are going to do in response. We desperately need an official response so members of my community can begin to move forward.

The Liberal government have failed every community contaminated by PFAS. In the absence of their own policy, they adopted the PFAS policy Labor took to the 2016 election and butchered it.

 Communication between Government departments and affected residents has been dismal. There is a complete lack of regard for people who have lost the value of everything they've worked their entire lives for. 

Since the announcement of PFAS in Williamtown, just three years ago, it has been the responsibility of seven different government ministers—seven! Talk about buck-passing.

 Countless community meetings have been held in Williamtown, but most of them, especially recently, have been held during parliamentary sitting weeks, conveniently preventing me and the responsible ministers from attending. On Monday of this week, a community meeting was held in Williamtown by the Department of Health. I was made aware of this information session by community members. My constituents phoned me and said, 'Hey, Meryl, have you heard about this meeting that the Department of Health are holding?' 'No,' I said. Then I saw an ad in the paper for it, in the classified section, right next to a fridge for sale. Thanks very much for that, Department of Health!

 That is not how you conduct meaningful consultation in communities. An elected representative should be able to be there. There was no email. There was no letter. There was no other notification of this meeting. That has been what has happened every time with this government. Understandably I was concerned that, as the local federal member, I was not informed that this information session was on or given appropriate information to pass on to my constituents. 

As parliament was sitting, a member of my staff attended. Like so many of the residents who also attended, she told me the meeting was practically useless or, to quote from the Newcastle Herald story today, 'I would have been better off at home talking to my dog'. Today I've written to the Minister for Health to seek an explanation about this community meeting.

 Why wasn't I, as the federal representative for the area, informed, and why wasn't reasonable notice given to the community?

As the local member for this area, I have continuously advocated for the people of Williamtown. I stood with them on my first day in parliament. In fact, it's one of the reasons that I even wanted to come to this place. When I made my first speech in the House, I said:

This issue is fresh and real in my mind and my heart. We have made mistakes with tobacco, asbestos and coal dust in the past. We sat idly by thinking everything would be okay. We cannot afford to do that with PFAS.

I made that speech in October 2016. We stand here now in December 2018, and very little has happened. But I stand with my community and I intend to continue to fight for them.

 We need real leadership on this, not some lame excuse. I wrote to and invited the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to come to my electorate to understand the issue. Once you sit down with the people of my community, you'll have a sense of what they've been through.

 And can I just say: this has happened to them. They didn't do anything wrong. They didn't choose to do something that might put them in jeopardy. This has happened through no fault of their own.

 A government department has done this to them, and what are we going to do to right it?

 I have put blood, sweat and many tearsespecially recentlyinto this.

Labor is currently working on our approach to PFAS contamination, especially in Williamtown. There is no doubt the committee's report is comprehensive. It makes a number of recommendations, each one incredibly important. As this report has been tabled only this week, I'm going to continue to work with my Labor colleagues to consider all of the recommendations outlined, including recommendation 5.

 Labor will review the recommendations and consider them further after a briefing from the Assistant Minister for Defence. I welcome that briefing, and I again plead with the defence minister and those responsible to do something.

There is no doubt that my focus is on my community, and I want to say thank you to those people who attended the hearings: Janice and Terry Robinson, Sue Walker, John Donahoo, Justin Hamilton, Rhianna and Cain Gorfine, who worked so hard, all of the members of the Coalition against PFAS, especially the president, Lindsay Clout, all of the members of the Williamtown and Surrounds Resident Acton Group, the general manager of Port Stephens Council, Wayne Wallis, Brian Byers, Linden Drysdale, David Gaddes, Neville Jelfs, Samantha Kelly, Stephen Kuehn, Des Maslen, Britt Osborne, Susan Peak, Wayne Sampson, Kim Smith, David Vial—and my very good friend and effective state member, Kate Washington, who has stood shoulder to shoulder with me to take up this fight every day. And Kate and I aren't giving up.

I am advocating for the people of my community. I'm sorry if I left someone off that list. You have all worked tirelessly. I thank you.

 Do not give up hope. The fight is still on for you.