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Speech: PFAS Report

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 3 Dec 2018

I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak on the report of the inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases, which was tabled earlier today. I want to thank the committee for establishing the inquiry into this important issue, and thank my fellow senators and MPs in the other place who were on the subcommittee and did a very detailed inquiry and produced a report that makes some quite strong recommendations. Thank you, also, as always, to the committee secretariat, who do such a wonderful job of organising the hearings and all of the work that happens behind the scenes to make sure that we have all the information to produce a report that is useful and can hopefully be used effectively. Most of all, though, I want to thank and acknowledge community members across the country for their continued advocacy for the protection of our environment, the scarce water resources we have in Australia and the health of our people and communities.

I recognise the significant stress and anxiety that PFAS contamination has caused, particularly for communities around the RAAF base in Williamtown in New South Wales, the Oakey Army Aviation Centre in Queensland and RAAF Base Tindal at Katherine in the Northern Territory. We know other sites in New South Wales, my home state, including HMAS Albatross, near Nowra; RAAF Base Richmond; RAAF Base Wagga Wagga; Holsworthy Barracks; Singleton Military Area; and Blamey Barracks at Kapooka, are similarly affected.

I came to the Senate and joined this committee when this inquiry was well underway, so I particularly want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Senator Lee Rhiannon, who did much of the Greens work in this area and did it very passionately. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to travel for the hearings of the committee to meet the community in other states face to face, but the PFAS contamination in Williamtown is something I am quite familiar with from my previous work as New South Wales spokesperson for the environment. Over the years, I have been contacted by many community members who are worried for their health, for their environment and for their families. I want to pay special tribute to the work of the Port Stephens Greens, people like Robin Williams and Nigel Waters, who work across party lines to get outcomes for their communities. Groups like the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group have been at the forefront of organising for their communities as well.

This is an extremely serious issue. Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, are persistent in the environment. They are bioaccumulative and toxic in certain species. First and foremost, we must apply the precautionary principle when there are concerns about human health and environmental impacts, especially with chemicals such as PFAS, which are highly persistent and mobile. The precautionary principle demands that preventative action be taken in the face of uncertainty—that if there are threats of serious and irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent damage to human health or the ecosystem. It is based on shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity, exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions and increasing public participation in decision-making.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, in their submission to the Australian government established expert health panel to advise on the potential health impacts associated with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, recommended:

The current Australian Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) advice is likely to be confusing for the public. It weakens approaches that apply the precautionary principle when advising the public about food and water consumption at sites potentially contaminated with PFAS. We advocate for a change to the national health advice that incorporates the latest international evidence for adverse human health effects.

The Australian Greens recognise that there is a need to provide accurate advice to communities about the health impacts of PFAS contamination, and that the Commonwealth government needs to do more to ensure the most up-to-date advice and information is provided.

Reading the submissions, it is clear that this issue has had a significant effect on people's mental and physical health. People have had to delay their retirement and actually increase their work hours because of this huge financial impact. Others talk about stress, anxiety and depression, and even cancers, heart attacks, pregnancy loss and developmental issues with children. This is not a simple issue, but community consultation has to be the cornerstone of resolving these matters. By 'community consultation', I don't mean a tick-box exercise in consultation—I mean consultation that is genuine, that is extensive, that is proactive and that is transparent. It must consider and actually incorporate the input from the community in outcomes and responses.

It should not have taken years of community campaigning for Defence to be accountable for the contamination that it had caused. The failure of Defence to take responsibility for this matter may have had significant health and social implications for communities. As noted in the report, the United States Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the Australian government 18 years ago to draw attention to the long-term risks of PFAS to human health and the environment, but existing stocks of the product continued to be used by Defence until at least 2011. Consistent with the polluter-pays principle, Defence has an obligation for all costs associated with testing, containment and remediation, as well as compensation of affected people.

I want to talk about buybacks. The government has decided that there will be no property buyback scheme. This is unacceptable. The reality is that the effects of PFAS contamination are not yet known, and we know that some properties will be significantly affected. There are no options but for compensation to include buyback. The government is responsible for the pollution. The Australian Greens strongly encourage the Commonwealth government to urgently develop a buyback program for properties where contamination is significant. This issue is not restricted to Defence properties either. Other federal government properties, as well as properties formerly owned by the federal government, such as airfields and former Defence sites, should be fully investigated by the Commonwealth government.

I want to highlight one case at Tamworth. The Tamworth Regional Council has spent up to $150,000 on containing PFAS contamination impacting Tamworth Regional Airport and nearby waterways. When asked why the federal government wasn't paying for the cost, the local member, the Hon. Barnaby Joyce, said, 'It will cost billions and billions and billions of dollars to do so across our nation, and that is why the government needs to make sure they've got their information right before they start spending that sort of money.' Well, we do have that information right. While the federal government equivocates having known about the potential harm that PFAS can cause for 18 years, local communities pay the social and financial cost. That's unacceptable.

The committee has made some strong recommendations, including providing leadership to drive effective and transparent responses to PFAS contamination, including monitoring, identifying gaps, priorities for investigation, and upscaling investment in the containment of PFAS blooms. This should be done by appointing a coordinator-general to coordinate a national response and provide a national point of contact. The committee has recommended that the Australian government assist property owners and businesses in affected areas through compensation, including buybacks, as well as free individualised case management and financial counselling services. We've also recommended legislation and policies to nationally ban the use of long-chain PFAS based firefighting foams, and contain and ultimately destroy these safely where they still exist.

The Australian government should urgently ratify the listing of PFAS under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. If the government care about the community, if they care about our environment, they should urgently accept and implement the recommendations of this report. They don't have to wait for months to provide a response. The community has waited long enough; communities have suffered for long enough. It's time to take concrete action to help them, and it's time to take that concrete action now.

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