This chapter addresses the following terms of reference:
(b) 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;
(c) communication and coordination with state and territory governments, local councils, affected local communities and businesses, and other interested stakeholders.
The chapter includes:
a summary of the Australian Government’s response to date to issues associated with PFAS contamination in, and around, Defence bases;
a discussion of the effectiveness of coordination between government agencies, both at the Commonwealth level and with state, territory and local governments;
a discussion of the effectiveness of communications with local communities, businesses and other interested stakeholders; and
the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations.
Australian Government response to date
In his 24 May 2018 letter to the Committee (Appendix C), the Prime Minister provided the following overview of the Government’s response to date to PFAS contamination emanating from Defence properties:
On 7 May 2018, the PFAS Taskforce announced that the Australian Government is supporting local communities affected by PFAS contamination with a new $73.1 million package of measures. This package includes $55.2 million for a drinking water program, which has commenced in communities surrounding Army Aviation Centre Oakey and RAAF Bases Williamtown, Tindal and Pearce. The program provides alternative drinking water for property owners in these communities who use bores as their primary source of drinking water, and where PFAS is present at levels above the drinking water guidance value.
The package also included $17.9 million to support the continued operation of the PFAS Taskforce within the Department of the Environment and Energy. This is consistent with the role Australia’s environment ministers are playing in overseeing the implementation of the recently agreed Intergovernmental Agreement on a Framework for National Responding to PFAS Contamination, which is available on the COAG website.
This new package builds on the Government’s extensive investments towards managing PFAS contamination of over $100 million, which includes:
$55m for affected communities of Williamtown, NSW and Oakey, Qld to reduce exposure, manage the environmental impacts, and provide additional dedicated mental health and counselling services ($3.5m), a voluntary blood testing program ($4.5m), and an epidemiological study into potential health effects from exposure to PFAS ($4m);
$5.7 million to support the Katherine community through access to the voluntary blood testing program, epidemiological study and additional dedicated mental health and counselling services;
$12.5 million for a National Research Program into the Human Health Effects of Prolonged Exposure to PFAS;
over $13 million for a National Research Grants Program to fund research into clean-up technologies to remove PFAS from the environment;
investing a large amount of resources in a wide range of intensive activities, including:
conducting extensive investigations at Defence sites and other Commonwealth-owned sites where fire-fighting foams have been in use;
reducing exposure pathways from contaminated drinking water in investigation areas by providing alternative sources of drinking water; and
trialling water filtration and other remediation activities at multiple Defence sites;
collaborating with state and territory governments to develop the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (publicly released on 16 February 2018); and
working on management options for a phase out of Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) and related compounds as part of Government’s decision-making on ratifying amendments to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
The Prime Minister also advised that the independent Expert Health Panel, established to advise the Australian Government on the potential health impacts associated with PFAS exposure, had publicly released its report. The letter stated:
The report supports the enHealth advice that there is no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects. These findings support the approach taken to date by the Australian Government in responding to PFAS contamination.
Coordination between government agencies
At the Commonwealth level, a PFAS Interdepartmental Committee (IDC) was established in September 2015 and continues to meet regularly. The purpose of the IDC is:
… to ensure relevant Commonwealth agencies are sharing information, coordinating activities, and working together to develop, and continually review, policies and practices for managing PFAS contamination.
The following Commonwealth departments and agencies are represented on the IDC:
Department of the Environment and Energy;
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet;
Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities;
Department of Agriculture and Water Resources;
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade;
Department of Industry, Innovation and Science;
Department of Human Services;
Department of Veterans’ Affairs;
Department of Finance; and
Responsibility for chairing the IDC is currently held by the PFAS Taskforce, which was established in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in December 2016 and transferred to the Department of the Environment and Energy in April 2018.
Subcommittees of the IDC have also been established in relation to specific issues; and bilateral or multi-lateral discussions between agencies are frequently held outside of formal IDC meetings ‘on an as-needs basis’.
The Department of the Environment and Energy told the Committee that the role of the PFAS Taskforce is ‘to provide oversight and coordination of Australian government responses to PFAS contamination’. The task force was resourced with approximately $1.5 million in 2018–19, with a staff of between seven and eight people located within the Department’s Chemicals Management Branch. The Department said the role of the taskforce, and the Chemicals Management Branch more broadly, was ‘to provide guidance and best-practice PFAS responses based on lessons learned and experiences shared through PFAS investigation and management processes’.
The Department noted that the work of the taskforce had ‘clear synergies’ with the broader work of the Department, and advised that the transition of the taskforce from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Department of the Environment and Energy:
… reflects the ongoing important role that the environment ministers actually have in some of the key activities for the taskforce and, in particular, for managing the roles of the intergovernmental agreement.
Defence explained that the Department of the Environment and Energy had the ‘day-to-day’ relationships with the key state agencies, and had a mechanism for formal consultations between the Commonwealth and state EPAs through the ‘Heads of EPAs’ meeting. It described this mechanism as a ‘good way of taking forward’ the work that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet had done in establishing the Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Framework for Responding to PFAS Contamination:
It’s that intergovernmental agreement which the task force established to help coordinate across the Commonwealth and state levels of government—particularly those agencies like EPAs—on PFAS issues in recognition that there was a gap in terms of there not being a nationally agreed framework on how to engage on PFAS issues across jurisdictions.
According to the Australian Government’s submission, the operation of the IDC and the ‘coordinating activities’ of the PFAS Taskforce have ‘greatly improved’ relationships between Commonwealth agencies, and their understanding of each other’s PFAS-related roles and responsibilities and the intersections between them.
The Intergovernmental Agreement
The Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Framework for Responding to PFAS Contamination (the IGA) came into effect in February 2018. As at June 2018, the Commonwealth and all states and territories except Western Australia had signed the IGA.
The IGA is intended to support collaboration and cooperation between the Commonwealth and states and territories to respond consistently and effectively to the issue. The IGA outlines principles for responding to PFAS contamination, key areas for action, and roles and responsibilities. As was outlined in Chapter 1, the IGA also brings together a number of other pieces of work across the levels of government, including a PFAS contamination response protocol, the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan, and the PFAS information sharing, communication and engagement guidelines.
The principles outlined in the IGA to guide responses to PFAS contamination are:
The primary focus of governments should be:
action to protect the environment
precautionary action to minimise human exposure
Cooperation between governments will deliver a more effective and efficient response, especially where contamination crosses jurisdictional boundaries
Governments should be transparent in their communication with affected communities and each other
Government responses to PFAS contamination should:
acknowledge that a polluting Party will generally hold responsibility for identification and investigation of sites, assessment of risks, engagement with stakeholders, and management and remediation of the affected land as required (including associated costs), subject to the Party’s legal rights and obligations
be informed by available scientific evidence, consultation, risk assessment and good practice environmental management
be financially and logistically sustainable for those responding
allow continued provision of public services
provide a balanced response to community and industry concerns, acknowledging the need for transparency, and early and direct communication
Governments acknowledge that responses to PFAS contamination should consider the varying characteristics and needs of affected communities, taking into account both short and longer term community expectations and needs
All governments acknowledge the varying characteristics, responsibilities and needs of each jurisdiction
Public land and government activities should be subject to the same requirements for managing PFAS as private landholders and enterprises.
The Australian Government’s submission outlined the process by which the Commonwealth developed the IGA:
The IGA was developed in close consultation with all relevant state and territory agencies, all Commonwealth PFAS IDC agencies, and the Australian Local Government Association. To ensure the IGA is robust and implementable, and to foster increased cross-jurisdictional collaboration and cooperation, the Commonwealth hosted two national PFAS workshops to inform development of the National Framework. Both workshops were attended by all relevant agencies in every jurisdiction.
Other communication and coordination between governments
The Australian Government’s submission also outlined a range of other actions that have been undertaken to enhance communication and coordination with state, territory and local government, including:
the PFAS Taskforce writing, in December 2017, to all local councils across Australia to provide them with information about PFAS contamination and the work of Australian governments to-date, and advise them that national guidance on PFAS management is available;
the PFAS Taskforce establishing, in January 2017, an informal First Ministers departments’ forum to discuss PFAS matters, with teleconferences hosted monthly, or more frequently on an ‘as-needs basis’, by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet;
regular communication and collaboration between the Department of Health and state and territory health departments through multijurisdictional committees, including the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and its Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth);
partnering with EPA Victoria, supported by all state and territory environment departments, on the development of the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan, which establishes a ‘practical basis for nationally consistent management guidance and standards for PFAS’;
engagement by Defence with state and territory regulatory authorities, state and territory health authorities and local councils in relation to the management of PFAS contamination emanating from Defence bases;
communication between Defence and a range of state, territory and local government agency stakeholders through Projection Control Groups, which are established for most investigation sites to coordinate reporting and information-sharing for the site;
Defence work with a range of state and territory-facilitated working groups to support the development and implementation of policies to respond to PFAS contamination, to collaborate at an operational level, and to ensure key technical information is shared in a ‘timely and transparent manner’.
Defence said that, on average, it had ‘quite good’ relationships with agencies in each jurisdiction, and that any disagreements that arose were dealt with ‘in a professional way’. Defence noted that, despite its prominent role in the community, it did not seek to be ‘experts’ on health or environmental issues:
We promote the advice that comes from [agencies responsible for health and the environment], but we don’t promote it as Defence advice. If there is advice about the consumption of fish out of the Katherine River, that would come from the Northern Territory Department of Health; it wouldn’t come from Defence. We might telegraph and promote that advice, but we don’t see ourselves as qualified in those sorts of spaces.
State and territory government submissions
The Queensland Government reported that Defence had made improvements both in its investigation and management of PFAS contamination, and in its collaboration with stakeholders, since the 2015–16 Senate inquiry:
Since the last Senate Inquiry, the Department of Defence has consulted with State and local government, as well as local interest groups, on the approach to investigating off-site contamination. In most circumstances where the Queensland Government has identified a cause for concern, the Department of Defence has accepted and acted upon recommendations made by Queensland’s technical experts. This effort and willingness to collaborate has led to many significant findings, including the June 2018 identification of PFAS in biota in the Bremer River and Warrill Creek around RAAF Amberley.
The Queensland Government particularly noted that, since the implementation of the National Environmental Management Plan, there has been a ‘significant increase in the cohesiveness of investigations’ and ‘a better understanding from polluters of their basic obligations to assess risk’.
The Government of South Australia similarly noted that the level of engagement and communication with the South Australian EPA had ‘improved in recent times’, and described the introduction of the IGA on PFAS as a ‘positive development’. However, the EPA ‘continued to be concerned with the degree, depth and timeliness of information shared by Defence’. The South Australian Minister for Environment and Water submitted:
I understand that sharing of factual information has often been limited or de‑identified. As a result, the SA EPA is unable to fully understand if the most appropriate PFAS management and responses, commensurate with risks identified through detailed assessment and analysis of all available information/ have been undertaken adequately by Defence. This is exacerbated by the cross jurisdictional and legislative environment that does not allow the SA EPA to actively regulate the offsite impacts from Commonwealth land.
… Adoption of full disclosure principles with the state government would ensure consistent, appropriate responses that are in the best interests for effective management and communication of outcomes to the Australian public.
The Government of South Australia’s submission went on to state that Defence’s investigation at RAAF Base Edinburgh did not meet the expectations of its EPA in relation to ‘adequate and timely information sharing as it relates to disclosure of potential human health and environmental risks’. In particular, the South Australian EPA was concerned that:
the timeliness of the investigations and reporting was ‘at disparity with’ the regulatory priority assigned if the site was regulated by the South Australian EPA. The EPA noted that the site was classed as ‘medium’ by Defence, and described the time take to undertake the investigation as of ‘unnecessarily long duration to undertake a relatively simple site contamination assessment program’;
the time taken to provide the EPA with a figure depicting the PFAS groundwater concentrations onsite was ‘unnecessarily long’; and
Defence had ‘not indicated its intent on the future use of PFAS chemicals in South Australia’, despite the state’s ban on PFAS-containing firefighting foams.
The Northern Territory Government reported a largely positive relationship with the Commonwealth Government in relation to the coordination and communication on its investigations at RAAF Bases Darwin and Tindal, and Robertson Barracks. Its Department of Health, for example, commended Defence’s provision of open and transparent advice, its responsiveness to questions and requests, and the Commonwealth Department of Health’s provision of information through its website and participation in community meetings. The Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Resources, however, noted that messaging between Human Health Risk Assessments and Environmental Risk Assessments ‘could have been handled more coherently by consultants’, and that it should have been informed about a Commonwealth investigation into export consignments ‘in a timely way’.
Mrs Sandra Nelson, the Northern Territory Member for Katherine, explained that the Northern Territory Government had ‘filled the gaps that the federal government has failed to deliver on’, including water testing and health information. She praised the role of the Department of Defence in engaging with local communities and criticised the lack of a similar response from other Commonwealth agencies:
From the very beginning it has been the Defence Force—a Department of Defence agency—that has publicly stood up, fronted communities and said, ‘It’s our fault’. They have been the only agency that has stood up and said, ‘This is ours. We’re responsible for it. We’re going to do what we can to support the communities where this has happened.’ It is unfortunate though that we haven’t had the same sort of response from some of the other federal government agencies, in particular the federal Department of Health.
The Northern Territory EPA, in relation to PFAS contamination at airports, noted that its relationships with the Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities and Air Services Australia had been ‘less productive’. It expressed support for the establishment of a national regulator that, in addition to having an overarching environmental regulatory role over activities on Commonwealth land, would provide coordination of ‘major issues such as PFAS rather than the current approach of dealing with it in an ad hoc way by a variety of agencies’.
The New South Wales Government similarly stated that ‘more work is needed by the Commonwealth’ to improve engagement with the state Government on PFAS investigations at airports, including improving transparency around the findings.
In relation to Defence sites, the New South Wales Government noted that, while it had previously expressed concerns with the Commonwealth’s management of the PFAS contamination, the two governments had worked more effectively together since the adoption of the IGA and the National Environment Management Plan. Improvements included:
coordination of community engagement, with representatives of Defence and NSW Government attending local door knocks, community information and drop in sessions;
quicker response times to the EPA’s requests for reports, data and information;
greater cooperation with the EPA Investigation Program objectives and timeframes;
regular face to face meetings between Defence and the EPA; and
advanced notice to the EPA of Defence priorities and upcoming work and submissions.
The New South Wales Government’s submission outlined a series of initiatives it had undertaken to assist communities affected by PFAS contamination. Expressing its support for the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the New South Wales Government noted that it had unsuccessfully requested reimbursement of $3.5 million from Defence ‘on numerous occasions’ in 2017 in relation to the Williamtown contamination response, and was continuing to request this. It called on the Commonwealth Government to implement a funding mechanism to allow states and territories to recover their costs in assessing and managing the issue.
The Victorian Government reported that its EPA’s engagement with Defence had been ‘positive, open and transparent’, with regular meetings and sharing of information and advice. It noted that the IGA on PFAS enables cooperation and supports collaboration between agencies, and that the National Environmental Management Plan provides states, territories and the Commonwealth with a ‘consistent, practical, risk-based framework’ for assessment, remediation and management of PFAS contamination.
The Victorian Government also referred to the Project Control Groups established with the relevant state agencies for each investigation. It noted that, due to the differing agency responsibilities between jurisdictions, it is important for Defence ‘to determine how communications will be handled and which agencies must be engaged’ at the start of each investigation. While the Victorian Government considered that investigations have been ‘well organised, transparent and thorough’, it added:
The Victorian Government was informed about any potential for livestock and other primary production impact via this [Project Control Group] involvement. However, some of the resultant communication requirements to the public have not been proactively supported by [the Department of Defence], which then required ad hoc, reactive collaboration with other state government departments and agencies … Increased support by [the Department of Defence] of scientific activities to enable evidence-based decision making, and coordination of data sharing and collaboration between jurisdictional investigations, would also have been desirable. In general, more clarity is required about roles and responsibilities associated with PFAS in relation to ongoing compliance, monitoring, sampling, remediation works and potential compensation claims.
Local government submissions
Port Stephens Council noted that the process of identifying the extent of contamination off RAAF Base Williamtown had been primarily left to the New South Wales EPA, on the basis of testing and advice developed by the Commonwealth. It said that this ‘separation of responsibilities’ had ‘further contributed to a lack of a consistent and coordinated dissemination of this critical information to Council or the community’.
While the Port Stephens Council reported that it had a good relationship with Defence, and acknowledged some improvements in the Commonwealth’s response since 2015, it cited the length of time taken for the Department of Health to develop health-based guidance values for PFAS as ‘an indication of a lack of coordination between the agencies of the Commonwealth’:
In consideration that the issue of potential contamination was effectively known from 2012, the five (5) year delay in the establishment of relevant guidance on risk based values for PFAS contamination is a major deficiency in the Commonwealth’s response to this matter. As established previously in this submission, this misalignment on timing and consistency of advice to the community on this matter continues to be of significant concern to the community.
More generally, Port Stephens Council reported that the ‘chain of command and hierarchy across government agencies’ had been unclear and confusing for the community. From the Council’s own perspective, it considered there were no clear strategies or project plans, and ‘too many players, too many subcommittees and no clear and defined leadership and ultimate accountability’. The Council made the following recommendation for an independent coordinating body to be established ‘in order to rectify these issues and improve the process going forward’:
Council strongly urges the Commonwealth to establish an appropriately defined and resourced body with the authority to genuinely coordinate between agencies of the Commonwealth in relation to the management of this issue. These coordinating powers should also be extended to a range of regulatory powers to ensure not only consistency in the definition of the extent of contamination but to enforce the corrective actions to remediate and mitigate impacts.
Port Stephens Council’s General Manager elaborated on this proposal at a public hearing:
This body should determine and allocate the necessary actions in a whole-of-government approach—federal and state—ensuring that each agency knows exactly what is expected of it and that information is communicated consistently and in a timely way. We certainly believe that there are very real opportunities to improve the legislative links between the Commonwealth and the states to ensure matters like environmental pollution and contamination incidents on Commonwealth land are appropriately managed.
The submission from Toowoomba Regional Council outlined Defence’s interactions with the Council in relation to connecting additional Oakey residents to the town’s reticulated water network between 2016 and 2018. The submission also outlined the Council’s participation in Defence’s community information sessions and walk-in sessions that had been held in Oakey.
Bathurst Regional Council stated that there had been ‘little communication’ from the Commonwealth Government on the issue. It expressed its disappointment in the ‘lack of acknowledgement by Commonwealth Government agencies of their actions and responsibilities for sites formerly operated by the Commonwealth Government, and in particular Airport facilities’
A number of submitters criticised the perceived lack of coordination between government agencies in responding to the PFAS issue. Some called for a specific organisation to be established or an individual to be appointed to coordinate the response. For example, Mr Cain Gorfine, President of the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group, told the Committee:
We still need to this day an overarching, independent individual to oversee all of the departments and cut through the departments to make decisions. It’s similar to how I think Angus Houston oversaw the search for MH17. We need somebody like that to sit as an umbrella over all of these organisations, to cut through and make decisions.
Anthony Bartlett suggested that there needed to be a Commonwealth entity that is supported by a local presence:
There needs to be a local PFAS committee that directly feeds to a Commonwealth taskforce. The NT EPA do not have the resources to deal with PFAS contamination within the NT. They do not have the authority to take action needed on Commonwealth lands. They need to stop working with Defence and start directing Defence. Defence cannot be the perpetrator of and the solution to the PFAS contamination.
… Obviously they’re not prepared for what this has been and the magnitude of the issue in town. I think that Defence executives should be relied on to run a RAAF base, as opposed to having to deal with such an enormous issue.
Dr Errol Lawson described the management of the PFAS contamination issue to date as having ‘the characteristics of a failing large-scale sociotechnical project. He criticised what he called the ‘totally reactive’ response to date with ‘very little advance thinking’. Dr Lawson called for a ‘genuine PFAS taskforce to undertake management of the Australia-wide problem’.
Mr Justin Hamilton similarly pointed to a lack of strong program management and leadership in relation to the clean-up operation. He claimed that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet had been ‘missing in action’ and that there had been a ‘revolving door’ of Defence personnel.
The Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group questioned the role and objectives of the PFAS Taskforce, and why there is not greater transparency. It described the taskforce as ‘yet another layer of bureaucracy’ and ‘a front to make it appear that the Government is doing something about the issue’.
The Coalition Against PFAS similarly considered the PFAS Taskforce to be ‘no more than an empty shell’, and suggested that the lack of coordination between the Department of Health and health-related agencies on one hand, and other Government Ministers and Departments on the other, was the most concerning. At a public hearing, the group’s President, Mr Lindsay Clout, expanded on his concerns about the taskforce:
[T]his task force seems to be quite invisible. We have difficulty communicating with them. We don’t know when they meet. We don’t know what their direction is.
Communication with local communities, businesses and other stakeholders
The Government’s current approach
At its Katherine hearing, Defence told the Committee that it tries to be as ‘open and transparent’ as it can with the communities that it deals with:
We make all of the information that is produced available. It goes on our websites. We have hard copies available at the various information sessions that we run. … We have a range of mechanisms for engaging. I have a couple of people on the ground who are here more or less full time, and have been for about a year and a half, to engage with community members about what we’re doing, the issues and what we need to address.
As noted above, the IGA, which came into effect in February 2018, includes an agreement for the Commonwealth and states and territories to implement the PFAS Information Sharing, Communication and Engagement Guidelines. The main goals of the guidelines are for the community to ‘feel confident’ that:
governments are clearly focused on their wellbeing;
they have all the available information relevant to them, provided in a timely manner and in a way they can easily understand;
they are being heard by their government and their concerns are acknowledged and understood;
in dealing with them, governments are being transparent and honest and acting with integrity;
they understand what is happening in their local area in relation to PFAS and how it may or may not affect them, as well as what steps they can take to manage this for themselves (e.g. reducing their exposure, keeping themselves abreast of the latest research developments and investigation results);
their concerns are being addressed by governments who are working together and taking action; and
they will be kept informed of any significant developments in government policies and activities.
In early 2018, the PFAS Taskforce developed PFAS.gov.au as a central portal of PFAS information, for a ‘wide range of interested audiences’. The purpose of the website is:
… to ensure that up-to-date data, scientific literature, government reports, guidance materials and other PFAS-related information is easily accessible to affected local communities and businesses, local councils, state and territory governments, and other interested stakeholders.
With the exception of the PFAS website (which directs users to other government websites), communication with the general public at the Commonwealth level has primarily been undertaken by individual departments on matters relevant to their specific roles. In relation to contamination emanating from Defence properties, Defence has been responsible for the majority of communication directly with affected communities. The Government’s submission outlined the objectives of this communication:
Defence aims to provide PFAS-affected communities with transparent, early and direct communication about site investigations, and to promote precautionary advice issued by state and territory governments. Defence conducts face to face community engagement activities at the commencement of each investigation and at key milestones during investigations.
As at the end of June 2018, Defence had held 95 community engagement events for PFAS-affected communities, primarily to update residents on the release of investigation outcomes, to provide residents with an opportunity to discuss their concerns, and to inform communities about how to access further information. Events have included formal presentations, walk in sessions and shopfront information sessions. Defence also operates dedicated community telephone lines for each site.
Defence’s website for its National PFAS Investigation and Management Program hosts publications released through the program, as well as site-specific Frequently Asked Questions, information on investigation areas, links to precautionary advice issued by state and territory governments, and links to other agency websites.
Defence has engaged with Indigenous land councils and development groups, as well Indigenous communities affected by contamination emanating from a Defence property. The aim of this engagement is to ‘identify the specific impacts PFAS contamination may have on their lifestyles or custodial land’ and to consult on the ‘cultural and heritage impacts of sampling, construction and remedial work’.
Other examples of where Commonwealth departments have engaged directly with the public outlined in the Government’s submission include:
the Department of Health’s involvement in face-to-face consultations with affected communities through community walk-in sessions, and establishment a dedicated national telephone and online counselling services for people affected by PFAS contamination. The Department of Health website also hosts a number of factsheets, information on health-related Government initiatives in relation to PFAS, and links to other agency websites.
members of the public were consulted on a draft of the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan, with written submissions accepted and consultation meetings held by EPA Victoria and the Department of the Environment and Energy during 2017.
Community Liaison Officers from the Department of Human Services have been appointed in Oakey, Williamtown and Katherine ‘to support community engagement, link residents with support services and facilitate local coordination with government authorities’.
State, territory and local government views
State, territory and local government bodies have also played a key role in communications with communities, businesses and other stakeholders affected by PFAS contamination emanating from Defence bases. For example, the NSW Government established a Community Reference Group (CRG) in Williamtown to ‘enable the community to engage directly with government agencies and experts’ about the contamination and to provide:
… a voice for the community to raise concerns; a further means to communicate new information to residents and consumers; and facilitate ongoing communication between the government and local community.
Port Stephens Council noted that while the Williamstown CRG provided an ‘appropriate forum for the coordination and communication of government responses’, there had been ‘a number of issues in relation to misalignment in release of information’ by Defence outside of this process.
The New South Wales Member for Port Stephens, Kate Washington MP, told the Committee that the establishment of separate Community Reference Groups and Elected Representative Groups had ‘created a gap between local residents, their elected representatives and the information being received by both groups’. She noted that both these groups had ‘since been abandoned’, with a new group formed with no elected representation.
The Northern Territory Government similarly established a PFAS community consultation group in Katherine, comprising members of the community and various Territory departments, and the Department of Defence. Mrs Sandra Nelson, the Northern Territory Member for Katherine, told the Committee that a local task force should be based in Katherine full time to provide a ‘point of contact’ to residents and provide reassurance that they are ‘not being forgotten’.
The Northern Territory Government advised that it had engaged with the business community through Small Business Champions in the Katherine and Darwin regions. The broad response from business was that there has been ‘inconsistent messages’ in relation to the ‘levels, distribution and dangers of PFAS to humans through contact with water, soil and the consumption of food produced in the regions’. The Northern Territory Government recommended that a clearer and more consistent message be provided to the business community to ‘alleviate any misconceptions of the dangers of PFAS, and the impacts to the community and visitors to the region’.
The New South Wales Government submitted that, in many cases, the initial response by Defence to the PFAS issue had been ‘slow’ and ‘did not meet community expectation’. However, it reported that there had been a ‘significant improvement’ in Defence’s responsiveness and willingness to engage, particularly through the use of drop in sessions, an enquiry line and one-on-one engagement with landowners.
Notifications to communities
Many submitters, particularly in the Williamtown area, expressed dissatisfaction with the time taken for Defence and other government authorities to notify the broader community about the PFAS contamination in their area. For example, the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group submitted:
The news of the contamination of Williamtown was broken to the community by the Newcastle Herald after the NSW EPA released the information on September 4, 2015. During this time Defence was still trying to silence the NSW EPA. Sadly the community was the last to know about the toxic contamination. Defence had already advised Hunter Water, Port Stephens Council and the NSW EPA in May 2012. At this time the contamination was 30 times the safe level, over a kilometre away from the base in Dawsons Drain.
Nicole Smith reported a ‘general feeling and impression’ that the public were being told information solely on a ‘need to know’ basis. She described the community information sessions as ‘not inclusive, RSVP only, at different locations, with key speakers at times quite defensive rather than helpful and didn’t appear to be actively listening to residents’. Ms Smith also advised that the local Indigenous communities were not included in initial consultations, and were only informed ‘closer to 12 months after property owners were told’.
At the public hearing in Williamtown, Defence said that one of the key changes it had made since 2015 was that, upon starting a new investigation, the ‘first thing’ it would do was to talk to local councils and authorities, and put out information to communities ‘at about the same time’.
Lack of trust in government information
Many participants in the inquiry described a breakdown of trust between affected residents and their governments, including in relation to the accuracy of information being communicated. For example, EcoNetwork Port Stephens submitted:
Despite significant resources being devoted to so-called community consultation, those affected in the Williamtown area have consistently felt under-informed and in some cases actively misled. The local community has lost all confidence in the authorities at all levels of government and see the efforts made by those authorities as largely about issues management and protecting the financial and reputational interests of government rather than dealing with the problem.
… There has been significant blame-shifting and ‘buck-passing’ on required actions both between and within the Commonwealth and State Governments, with affected communities often unable to get straight answers to important questions, firm timelines for action or even any assurances about solutions being in sight.
Dr Errol Lawson noted the ‘extreme’ level of stress being experienced Katherine residents. He emphasised the need for governments to ‘keep it simple and talk often’ in order to gain the confidence of residents.
Dr Andrew Jeremijenko submitted that risk communication and coordination had been ‘particularly poor’ and that this had ‘increased outrage from local communities’. He suggested that if the risk communication had been handled better, there would have been ‘less public outrage and potentially fewer litigation cases’.
Anthony Bartlett suggested that there was a need for more direct communication between senior members of the Government and the community:
Certainly, what we want to see is more government coordination; more honesty; transparency that is transparent, that doesn’t turn translucent. There needs to be communication between community members and the government directly, rather than the Chinese whispers that seem to be happening. There needs to be a message given directly from the community to people like Marise [Payne] and Nigel [Scullian], and the Prime Minister especially.
… we need to know, as a community, that the government are doing everything that they can to fix the issue. I don’t think that’s coming through clearly enough.
Some participants in the inquiry expressed a lack of satisfaction in the conduct or format of community meetings. For example, Jenny Robinson, of Williamtown, wrote that the meetings ‘have been almost a complete waste of our time’, and that the times of the meetings are ‘when many have work commitments or have the inability to travel’. The Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group submitted that there had been a ‘revolving door’ of Defence personnel attending the meetings, that it was ‘hard to gain any commitment’ from Commonwealth agencies, that questions could be ignored or were taken on notice and ‘rarely followed up’, and that public servants did not come prepared.
Mr Nathaniel Roberts, a resident of Oakey, described the information provided by Defence as ‘always inconsistent’, and said that they are ‘very vague and won’t answer questions’ at community meetings. He concluded:
There are a whole lot of different reasons why the community has built this distrust in what Defence is doing. No-one really believes that they are interested in fixing the issue. It’s seemed more like an exercise in limiting liability.
Defence told the Committee that, in response to comments from community members, it had moved away from doing only ‘town hall’ style meetings to also offer one-on-one ‘drop in’ sessions.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) noted that the PFAS portal is mainly a link to other websites, but that those other websites do not provide a link back to the portal. It also commented that the portal does not ‘indicate who has responsibility for the information provided’ and that ‘there are no contact details or ability to provide feedback’. The RACP submitted that there was a need to consolidate the relevant advice found across government websites, and to develop a list of frequently asked questions covering the range of issues associated with PFAS.
The National Toxics Network criticised the consultation process for the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan, stating that meetings to develop the plan were ‘closed to civil society including firefighters’ but ‘actively involved the polluters … and their consultants’.
Dr Peter Spafford, a general practitioner and business owner in Katherine, submitted that he had not had a ‘single piece of information from any source directed at small business which would allow me to formulate alterations to my business plan’.
The scale of the issue of PFAS contamination in Australia should not be underestimated. As was noted in Chapter 2, the Australian Government describes Defence’s investigation program alone as ‘possible the largest program of environmental investigations ever conducted in Australia’. In addition to Defence bases, PFAS contamination is being investigated and managed in a range of other locations across Australia, including many airports and other fire training facilities. Effective coordination of effort will be crucial for the success of these investigations.
It was clear to the Committee during the inquiry that the Australian Government’s response to the PFAS issue to date has suffered from a lack of coordination, both between portfolios and between jurisdictions. Mistakes have also been made in relation to the way information has been communicated to the public, both in the way information and advice has been presented and in respect of the timeliness of that information being provided. These mistakes have, unfortunately, contributed to a distinct lack of trust amongst community members in the information provided by governments at all levels.
The Committee was encouraged to hear of slow but steady improvements that have been made to coordination and communication in recent times. This has included Defence’s responsiveness to feedback about the way in which community meetings are conducted, and the appointment of local points of contact for community members. More broadly, the work of the PFAS Taskforce, and the interdepartmental committee on PFAS, has contributed to greater coordination across the Australian Government and between jurisdictions. In particular, the Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Framework for Responding to PFAS Contamination has helped to clarify roles and responsibilities, as well as providing a nationally agreed PFAS contamination response protocol, a PFAS National Environmental Management Plan, and information sharing, communication and engagement guidelines.
The Committee considers, however, that there is a need for stronger national leadership to respond to the PFAS issue. The Committee was concerned to hear that the lessons learned in the investigation of Defence sites may not be being replicated across government, with some submitters pointing to a relative lack of transparency and stakeholder engagement in relation to the investigations of airports being overseen Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities and Airservices Australia.
PFAS contamination is a national problem that, due to the persistence of PFAS in the environment, will take many years to resolve. PFAS contamination plumes are not contained within the confines of Defence bases or other facilities, but spread widely through the surrounding soil and water substrates. A range of communities will continue to be affected, various portfolios will continue to be involved, and cross-jurisdictional issues will continue to complicate responses. Coordinating responses across government will require more than just an exchange of ideas and the development of guidance: it will require leadership.
The Committee considers that this leadership can best be achieved through the establishment of a dedicated, and appropriately resourced, office to coordinate the Australian Government’s response to the PFAS contamination issue, and to work with other jurisdictions to drive effective, transparent and nationally consistent responses. The office should be headed by an appropriately qualified Coordinator-General to provide a national point of contact and accountability for the Government’s response.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government appoint a Coordinator-General to coordinate the national response to the PFAS contamination issue, supported by an appropriately resourced office. The Coordinator-General’s role should include:
ongoing monitoring of PFAS levels in all management areas, using a range of sampling methods, and publish the results as soon as practicable in a publicly accessible format;
providing leadership to drive effective, transparent and consistent responses to PFAS contamination at sites across the country;
identifying gaps and priorities for investigation and remediation, based on the extent of contamination and risk to human and environmental health in each area;
working across portfolios, and with state, territory and local governments, to overcome barriers to cooperation, coordinate actions and to clearly communicate outcomes and advice to the public; and
providing a national point of contact and accountability for the Government’s response to the PFAS issue, including annual reporting to the Parliament.