Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Joint Committee Report

December 05, 2018


I'd like to thank the people who contributed to or appeared before the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in the investigation into this PFAS issue, and I rise to discuss some of the recommendations in and issues surrounding this report and how it affects my community in Macquarie. The committee's report is comprehensive and makes a number of recommendations that Labor will certainly review, consider further and request further briefings on so that we can really fill out the picture of what is going on in these sites around the country.


The report is particularly timely for my electorate of Macquarie as to the impact of PFAS contamination on people who live around the Richmond RAAF base. Earlier this year, we learnt that there's a 10-kilometre-square plume of PFAS-contaminated groundwater that sits below and spreads beyond the Richmond RAAF base area. All the major on-site drainage systems were found to contain levels of PFAS above the recommended level for drinking. There were also high levels in tributaries to Rickabys Creek and Bakers Lagoon, and levels above safe drinking levels are going into the Hawkesbury River. This is the first tangible detail that we have had on the contamination, even though it was initially publicly flagged in 2016. For two years I have been critical of the delay in getting meaningful testing of all the bores, the soil and the water bodies in the surrounding areas, and  I have to say: the testing remains a very slow process.


As the reality of the PFAS-contaminated soil has dawned on the local community, the failure of this government's response has become very clear. It shouldn't have needed this inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to precipitate action. But I hope it does precipitate action, because the recommendations in this report go to the heart of the poor response so far on this issue.


Recently, close to a hundred Hawkesbury locals attended a briefing by Defence on the latest findings of the testing, but, unfortunately, they were left with more questions than answers. Some are finally receiving testing, after a lot of asking. But it should have happened before now.


I think the efforts of East Richmond resident Joanna Pickford have had a big role in the progress that we've seen. Joanna found out that there was likely PFAS contamination on her property and, as the testing evolved and the results came in, she was advised not to eat her home-grown eggs from her three chooks. This was pretty confronting for somebody who had been feeding those eggs to her grandkids for a really long time. Joanna is furious at the lack of information, even now, and the lack of action, as are Alistair and Kellie, who raise cattle in the Hawkesbury, including on land alongside the Richmond RAAF base. Their requests are very reasonable. They want to be personally tested, without having to spend $3,000. They currently don't qualify because they don't live on that property, yet they're on that property all the time, looking after their cattle. It just should be a given. I note that this report recommends that efforts should be made to improve participation in blood testing and notes the potential value of the tests to monitor the effectiveness of measures being taken to reduce the pathways of PFAS exposure.


Kellie and Alistair would like the contaminated water to be fenced off from their stock. Again, how reasonable is that? They'd like to have better information via blood testing on their livestock so they can see what, if any, the PFAS levels are. Like them, I struggle to see why this isn't a sensible thing to do given that it's happened for Oakey, Albatross, East Sale and Tindal. I can't see why Richmond shouldn't qualify for that as well. Kellie and Alistair want a lot more information about the possible impact on their cattle. And that's the big thing—it's a question mark; it's a possible impact. They are also frustrated by the general mixed messages they've received

—one piece of advice from a food scientist and different recommendations from Defence. It is really confusing for people on the ground. They can't understand why agencies aren't working together. My reading of this report suggests that the committee can't either. Recently, testers authorised by the defence department came to their farm to repeat tests that the New South Wales EPA had already done. The lack of coordination is staggering.



Labor has led the way when it comes to standing up for communities affected by PFAS contamination and pushed the government to establish this inquiry. Alongside my shadow ministers, I want to make reference in particular to the member for Paterson, who has fought for a fair go for her community. The report has identified that there needs to be leadership to drive effective, transparent and consistent responses to PFAS contamination across the country. This is something that obviously needs to work across portfolios and across state, territory and local jurisdictions so that there is less confusion about the problem and the response, as has been recommended by this report.


There is absolutely a need for my local community in and around the Richmond RAAF Base to have a single point of contact. It's needed not just for the people who currently live here but for people who have lived here in the past and those who've worked on the base. One of the recommendations of this committee report is to upscale the investment in the containment of PFAS and remediate contaminated land and water sources. That is certainly what the residents who live near the RAAF base in Richmond would like to see. For months and months, there has been a contaminated pile of soil secured with tarps sitting at one end of the base, close to homes and a road. To date there has been no plan to remove it or remediate it. It should not be left to the base to find a solution on their own. They need the same support that other bases across the country need. They need experts to be guiding and advising them. And the community deserves to see that soil removed now.


I note that one of the recommendations of this report is that the government 'continue to engage with international stakeholders, including past manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, to ensure best practice approaches are taken'. There should be an effort made to speak with former employees of the manufacturers in Australia, like Mike Clifford, who lives in my electorate and worked at the 3M production site in Western Sydney where this chemical was made. This report tells us that, in May 2000, the 3M company, reportedly the largest worldwide producer of PFOS, announced a voluntary phase-out of PFOS in light of emerging scientific evidence about its persistence in the environment. For 20 years Mike worked there, like all employees, oblivious to the potential that the product they were making might have health and environmental effects. Mike recounts a story where he was speaking with one of the staff who cleaned out the tanks where the PFAS was made. The employee remarked to him that, if he wanted to kill some weeds in his garden, this stuff was the stuff to use, and he could happily supply it to him for his garden.


These are the sorts of stories and insights that we need to be gathering into a single place to get a really good picture. We also need to listen to the experiences of firefighters, many of whom feel that they have not had   the support they need to deal with the PFAS contamination they may have been exposed to. People like Mike Clifford are keen to share their knowledge. He has provided it to the New South Wales EPA, but they have as yet done no follow-up nor asked him for additional detail. He is a resource that we should be accessing. I'm sure that there are many other people with useful and meaningful information. Every fire captain or former fire captain of a Rural Fire Service brigade in the Blue Mountains can probably tell you where in the bush the exercises using this chemical were done. There is a lot of local knowledge about the practices of and locations where PFAS was used, whether the dregs were dumped and where there's a need to have an understanding of all those non- Defence contaminated sites.


I return to the issue of my local producers—a relatively small number of people around the Richmond base— and also to the local residents who raise their chooks on the land. There is without a doubt a level of concern. The only way to deal effectively with that concern is by turning uncertainty into certainty. The only way to do that is through science. This is where testing is so important. It's not until the full facts are known that we'll have any idea of what we're dealing with at Richmond. Getting to this point of knowledge has taken way too long, and I know we wouldn't even be anywhere near where we are were it not for Labor. People are relying  on government to do the right thing on what is undeniably an extremely difficult issue. I look forward to the government's response to this report and its recommendations.