PMB: PFAS Contamination

28 November 2016

I move:

That this House:

(1) calls on the Government to:

(a) establish a national inter-governmental taskforce to co-ordinate the response of state/territory and federal government agencies to the perfluorinated and polyfluorinated (per- and poly‑fluoro) alkyl substances contamination on and around Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) bases at Williamtown and Oakey, and throughout Australia;

(b) develop a nationally consistent approach for screening and health guidelines, assessments, containment, management standards and remediation protocols for Commonwealth sites and their surroundings that are identified as being contaminated with per- and poly-fluoro alkyl substances;

(c) provide:

   (i) a breakdown and schedule of spending of the $55 million allocated from the Defence budget to deal with contamination at and around RAAF bases caused by per- and poly‑fluoro alkyl substances;

   (ii) transparency into the Government's per- and poly-fluoro alkyl substances interdepartmental committee, including a breakdown of its composition, terms of reference and meeting schedule; and

   (iii) a timeline for when, how, and by whom the issue of per- and poly-fluoro alkyl substances will be brought to the COAG; and

(d) inform Williamtown residents when its proposed dialogue will begin on buybacks of properties contaminated by per- and poly-fluoro alkyl substances; and

(2) while welcoming the New South Wales Environmental Protection Agency's lifting of fishing bans implemented as a result of the contamination, calls on the Government to:

(a) ensure income support is available to affected commercial fishers through to March 2017; and

(b) advocate for leniency by lending institutions with respect to business and home loan repayments and lending practices involving properties in the Williamtown investigation zone.

I move this motion today out of sheer anger at the Turnbull government's failure to help the people of Williamtown, people who are stuck in a red zone of contamination caused by firefighting chemicals, known as PFAS, leaching from the RAAF base; people who are worried about their health, their families and their future; and people who have already felt the impact, with elevated levels of these chemicals in their blood, with land that has been devalued and is no longer fit for purpose, with businesses that are struggling because banks will not lend them money, with the stigma of living in a contaminated zone and with anger and frustration at a government that will not deliver. So, yes, I am angry at this government as it sits idly by, failing to deliver on the commitments it made during the election campaign, while my community struggles.

This contamination does not affect the people of Williamtown only. They and the people of Oakey in Queensland are merely guinea pigs, and there are more communities to follow. There are more Defence bases contaminated. At sites throughout Australia, environmental investigations have only just begun. In Williamtown, environmental investigations have been going on for 15 months. Fifteen months might not sound like a long time, but when you are living with it, when you are lying awake every night worrying about the future, 15 months feels like a life time.

This government promised voluntary blood testing, but it took too long, so the community did it themselves. This government promised—the Prime Minister himself promised—to begin a dialogue on voluntary buybacks of properties once environmental testing was complete. Now my community fear that environmental testing will never be complete. My community were promised action. Now they feel they have no choice but to take legal action against Defence for the damage it has done and the losses caused.

We simply do not know if these PFAS chemicals are affecting health in our community. Australian health authorities maintain there is no proven link with ill health, but in the United States DuPont has been found liable for a man's testicular cancer because it discharged these chemicals into waterways. It is the second case in which the company has been found liable, and there are 3,500 more cases to come. I do not say that to be alarmist, nor to challenge the authority of Australian health experts, but the jury is quite literally still out on these chemicals. They have come to the notice of the United Nations Stockholm convention on persistent organic compounds and they have come to the notice of the American courts, and this will continue.

What must occur in Australia and what was committed to by this government is a nationally consistent approach to PFAS chemicals and the communities impacted by them. We must have, as Labor suggested in the first place, a proper intergovernmental independent task force. We must have national guidelines. We must have transparency around government action. We must have support for affected communities.

A remark that is made to me over and over again is: if this were a company that had contaminated the water supply, the commercial fisheries and private property, there would be holy hell to pay, and yet this is our government that has caused this grief. This government must step up. I urge the members of this House to support this motion so that my community in Williamtown, Salt Ash, Oakey in Queensland and the many other communities who are affected and will be affected by PFAS contamination are dealt with promptly and fairly. We cannot wait for the science to be completely known. We cannot risk another asbestos.

I have felt like a lone voice on this issue, such has been the silence from this government, and I note there are no speakers on the Notice Paper today for this. I am now pleased that I have my own colleagues in Labor by my side in the House who have joined me, and we collectively have worked so hard. Gai Brodtmann, the federal member for Canberra, who joins me in the House, has worked so hard; she has had countless sleepless nights alongside me with this as well. The member for Newcastle, who also joins me in the House, has been by our side and her community's side, particularly in relation to commercial fishing. I urge this House: back me, back all the communities in Australia that have been impacted and please support this motion.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Hogan ): I thank the member for Paterson. Is the motion seconded?

Mr Georganas: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.