On 7 December 2017, the Senate referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade an inquiry into the Commonwealth Government’s management of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination in an around Defences bases, for inquiry and report by 20 June 2018.
The terms of reference for the inquiry are:
The Commonwealth Government’s management of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination in and around Defence bases, with particular reference to:
the extent of contamination in and around Defence bases, including water, soil, other natural assets and built structures;
the response of, and coordination between, agencies of the Commonwealth Government, including, but not limited to, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Health, the Department of the Environment and Energy, the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force;
communication and coordination with state and territory governments, local councils, affected local communities and businesses, and other interested stakeholders;
the adequacy of health advice and testing of current and former defence and civilian personnel and members of the public exposed in and around Defence bases identified as potentially affected by contamination;
the adequacy of Commonwealth and state and territory government environmental and human health standards and legislation, and any other relevant legislation;
remediation works at the bases; and
what consideration has been given to understanding and addressing any financial impact to affected businesses and individuals.
The Committee resolved to seek further information from the Prime Minister before resuming consideration of the reference. The Chair wrote to the Prime Minister on 12 February 2018 and the Prime Minister’s response was provided on 24 May 2018 (see Appendix C).
The Committee commenced its inquiry on 30 May 2018 and established a new sub-committee for the purpose of the inquiry (the PFAS Sub-Committee).
On 9 May 2018 the Senate agreed to extend the reporting date until 23 August 2018. On 14 August 2018, the Senate agreed to further extend the reporting date until 25 October 2018.
Conduct of the inquiry
The Committee announced the commencement of the inquiry by media release on 30 May 2018 and requested submissions from interested members of the public. Submissions were requested by 6 July 2018.
The Committee received 81 submissions, including 4 supplementary submissions, from a range of government agencies, non-government organisations and individuals. Submissions are available on the Committee’s website. A full list of submissions received is also included at Appendix A.
The Committee held four public hearings in Katherine, Williamtown, Oakey and Canberra. Transcripts from these hearings are available on the Committee’s website. A full list of public hearings and witnesses is available at Appendix B.
This report is divided into seven chapters:
The remainder of this chapter briefly introduces PFAS and discusses the context of the inquiry;
Chapter 2 discusses the extent of PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases, and remediation work at the bases (terms of reference a and f);
Chapter 3 discusses the adequacy of health advice and testing of defence and civilian personnel and members of the public exposed in and around Defence bases (term of reference d);
Chapter 4 discusses the consideration given to understanding and addressing the financial impact on affected businesses and individuals (term of reference g);
Chapter 5 discusses the response of, and coordination between, Commonwealth agencies; and communication and coordination with state and territory governments, local councils, affected communities and businesses, and other interested stakeholders (terms of reference b and c); and
Chapter 6 discusses the adequacy of Commonwealth and state and territory environmental and human health standards and legislation, and other relevant legislation (term of reference e).
Context of the inquiry
PFAS contamination has been an issue of increasing community concern in recent years, both in Australian and overseas. In Australia, concerns to date have mainly focused on Defence facilities and their surrounding communities. These include the communities surrounding RAAF Base Williamtown (New South Wales), the Oakey Army Aviation Centre (Queensland) and RAAF Base Tindal (Katherine, Northern Territory). In total, as at September 2018, 26 Defence sites are undergoing or have undergone detailed investigation. However, a wide range of other sites around Australia are known to have experienced PFAS contamination and the extent of this contamination is currently under investigation by various Commonwealth, state and territory authorities.
Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is the name given to a group of man-made chemicals used since at least the 1950s for a variety of specialty applications. PFAS can be found in:
some types of firefighting foams;
some industrial processes, such as metal plating and plastics etching;
some photo-imaging applications, such as X-ray films;
aviation hydraulic fluid;
the manufacture of some non-stick cookware and other products;
some fabric, furniture and carpet stain protection applications; and
Concerns about the impacts of PFAS have particularly arisen due to their stable chemical structure and ability to move through the environment. The PFAS National Environment Management Plan states:
PFAS resist physical, chemical and biological degradation, and are very stable. This stability creates a problem: PFAS last for a long time.
… Molecules of PFAS are made up of a chain of carbon atoms flanked by fluorine atoms, with a hydrophilic group at their head. Their high solubility in water means that PFAS readily leach from soil to groundwater, where they can move long distances. When the groundwater reaches the surface, the PFAS will enter creeks, rivers and lakes. There it can become part of the food chain, being transferred from organism to organism.
While at least 4730 different PFAS-related chemicals are known to exist, the most well-known and studied examples are:
perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS),
perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and
perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS).
Each of these chemicals has been recognised as being persistent in the environment, bio-acculmulative, and toxic in certain species.
Firefighting foams (also known as Aqueous Film Forming Foams, or AFFFs) containing PFOS and PFOA as active ingredients were once used extensively, including at Defence bases, due to their effectiveness in fighting liquid fuel fires. PFHxS is also commonly found in the legacy firefighting foam as an impurity in the manufacturing process.
The use of PFAS in an ‘environmentally dispersive’ manner, in particular due to their presence in firefighting foams, has led to elevated levels at a number of sites around Australia, including at a number of Defence properties. To a lesser degree, PFAS have also entered the environment through sewerage discharge and the disposal of trade waste and consumer products to landfill.
Due to the long half-life of PFAS and its past widespread use, PFAS are found at low levels in the environment worldwide, including in locations and wildlife far from direct human sources, such as in the polar regions. The Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee advises:
Because of their widespread use, people in Australia commonly have some PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS in their body. PFOS and PFOA are readily absorbed through the gut, and once these chemicals are in a person’s body it takes about two to nine years, depending on the study, before those levels go down by half, even if no more is taken in.
Recognition of PFAS as a pollutant
PFOS is listed under Annex B of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which requires its use and production to be restricted to only certain acceptable purposes and specific exemptions. Australia has not yet ratified this listing. PFOA and PFHxS are also at varying stages of consideration for listing under the Stockholm Convention.
The European Chemicals Agency lists PFOA as a ‘substance of very high concern’ due to its persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic characteristics. The European Union has recently introduced measures to regulate the production and use of PFOA due to the ‘unacceptable risk to human health and the environment’ posed by the chemicals.
There are no mandatory restrictions on the use of PFAS in Australia. However, the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) has issued recommendations to industry stakeholders for the phase out of PFAS, and for PFOS and PFOA firefighting products to be restricted to essential use only, and not used for fire training or testing purposes. Queensland and South Australia have also introduced bans on firefighting foams containing PFAS in their jurisdictions.
enHealth advises that there is ‘currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse health effects’. However, due to the persistence of PFAS in human and the environment, enHealth recommends that human exposure ‘be minimised as a precaution’.
More recently, an Expert Health Panel for PFAS was established to advise the Australian Government on the potential health impacts associated with PFAS exposure and to identify priority areas for further research. The Panel conducted a review of 20 recently published Australian and international reports and academic reviews that had examined scientific studies on potential human health effects of PFAS exposure. The Expert Panel’s report, released in May 2018, while noting the potential links between PFAS exposure and certain health effects identified in previous studies, concluded:
Importantly, there is no current evidence that supports a large impact on a person’s health as a result of high levels of PFAS exposure. However, even though the evidence for PFAS exposure and links to health effects is very weak and inconsistent, important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out based on the current evidence.
Intergovernmental agreement on PFAS
An Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Framework for Responding to PFAS Contamination (the IGA) came into effect in February 2018 in order to ‘support collaboration and cooperation between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories to respond consistently and effectively to [PFAS] contamination’. The following key areas for action were agreed to under the IGA:
adopting a PFAS Contamination Response Protocol;
applying the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan;
implementing the PFAS Information Sharing, Communication and Engagement Guidelines;
applying guidance material agreed by relevant national government expert groups, including:
Health Based Guidance Values for PFAS;
enHealth Guidance Statements on PFAS;
Australian Health Protection Principal Committee PFAS Factsheet;
Food Regulation Standing Committee Statement on PFAS and the general food supply;
supporting collaboration between agencies and industry stakeholders across jurisdictions; and
collaborating to advance high quality research into PFAS.
The Commonwealth Government’s response to the issue is being coordinated by the PFAS Taskforce, which was established in December 2016.
2016 Senate committee reports
In late 2015, the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee commenced an inquiry into matters related to PFAS contamination at Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Williamtown and other sites. The terms of reference for the Senate committee’s inquiry were similar to the current inquiry, but extended to other Commonwealth, state and territory sites where firefighting foams containing PFAS were used, including non-Defence sites.
The Senate committee presented Part A of its report in February 2016, focusing on the contamination at and around RAAF Base Williamtown. The Senate committee made eight recommendations:
Recommendation 1 – The committee recommends that Defence immediately review its provision of water and replacement of water infrastructure to affected residents to ensure it is sufficient to meet their needs.
Recommendation 2 – The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government, with the advice of the NSW Department of Primary Industries, develop an initial compensation package for the commercial fishermen affected by the closures of Fullerton Cove and Tilligerry Creek.
Recommendation 3 – The committee recommend that Defence examine providing additional mental health and counselling support services to those affected by contamination at RAAF Base Williamtown.
Recommendation 4 – The committee recommends that Defence and the NSW Government examine establishing a joint taskforce to coordinate the response of government agencies to the contamination from RAAF Base Williamtown.
Recommendation 5 – The committee recommends the Commonwealth Government commit to voluntarily acquire property and land which is no longer fit for purpose due to PFOS/PFOA contamination from RAAF Base Williamtown.
Recommendation 6 – The committee recommends that if PFOS/PFOA contamination from RAAF Base Williamtown causes permanent or long-term fishing closures, the Commonwealth Government should:
commit to compensate and purchase the relevant rights of fisherman affected; and
establish an industry transition program for affected commercial fishermen to assist them relocate or transfer to other industries.
Recommendation 7 – The committee recommends that Defence arrange and fund a program of blood tests for residents in the investigation area on an annual basis.
Recommendation 8 – The committee recommends that Defence release a policy statement to clarify its environmental obligations and responsibilities for contamination which spreads to non-Commonwealth land. In particular, it should clarify the capacity of State and Territory environment regulation to apply to its activities.
The Government response to Part A of the Senate committee’s report was presented in April 2016. The Government agreed with Recommendation 1, 3, and 4, did not agree with Recommendation 7, and ‘agreed in part’ to Recommendation 8. The Government provided ‘interim’ responses to Recommendations 2, 5 and 6, pending the results of further investigations and risk assessments. For Recommendation 5, in relation to voluntary property acquisitions, the Government response stated:
The Australian Government will further consider the matter of property acquisition once interim health reference values have been established and a detailed environmental investigation at RAAF Base Williamtown has been concluded. Until these activities are finalised, the Australian Government is not in a position to determine the actual level of risk for existing property use. The Australian Government is committed to the considered investigation of this important issue and will review its response to this recommendation once this information has been established.
On 7 May 2018, shortly after the release of the Expert Health Panel’s report, the PFAS Taskforce announced by media release that ‘based on the knowledge and evidence available at this time, the Australian Government is not considering a land purchase program as a result of PFAS contamination’.
In May 2016, the Senate committee presented Part B of its report, focused on the Army Aviation Centre Oakey and other Commonwealth, state and territory sites. The Senate committee made nine recommendations:
Recommendation 1 – The committee recommends that the Department of Defence recommence and fund a program of blood tests for residents in the Oakey investigation area on an annual basis.
Recommendation 2 – The committee recommends that the Department of Defence ensure that mental health and counselling support services are provided free of charge to those affected by PFOS/PFOA contamination from Army Aviation Centre Oakey, and that these services continue for as long as they are required by residents.
Recommendation 3 – The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government commit to voluntarily acquire property and land which is no longer fit for purpose due to PFOS/PFOA contamination from Army Aviation Centre Oakey. The committee further recommends that the Commonwealth Government assist residents who may wish to relocate to an alternative estate within the local community which is free from contamination.
Recommendation 4 – The committee recommends that the Government explicitly legislate for the immediate removal and safe disposal of PFOS and PFOA firefighting foams from circulation and storage at all Commonwealth, state and territory facilities in Australia.
Recommendation 5 – The committee recommends that voluntary blood testing be made available to current and former workers at sites where firefighting foams containing PFOS/PFOA have been used, and current and former residents living in proximity to these sites who may be affected by contamination.
Recommendation 6 – The committee recommends that the Department of the Environment complete the domestic treaty making process for the ratification of the addition of PFOS as an Annex B restricted substance under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants before the end of 2016.
Recommendation 7 – The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government review the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and, if necessary, seek to have it amended to enable the Department of the Environment to assume a national leadership role and intervene early should other legacy contamination events emerge on the scale of Williamtown or Oakey, especially when contamination spreads from land controlled by Defence to non-Commonwealth land.
Recommendation 8 – The committee recommends that it continue to monitor the Department of Defence's handling of contamination of its estate and surrounding communities caused by PFOS/PFOA, and report to the Senate on an interim basis as required.
Recommendation 9 – The committee recommends that it continue to monitor the response of, coordination between and measures taken by Commonwealth, state and territory governments to legacy contamination caused by PFOS/PFOA, including the adequacy of environmental and human health standards and legislation.
At the time of the current inquiry, the Government had not yet provided a response to the recommendations in Part B of the Senate committee’s report. In his letter to the Committee of 24 May 2018 (Appendix C), the Prime Minister advised:
The Australian Government is currently finalising its response to the Senate Inquiry Report part B – Army Aviation Centre Oakey and other Commonwealth, state and territory sites. I am aware this response is overdue and have urged relevant Ministers to prioritise finalisation.