Committee view and recommendations
The first part of the committee's inquiry has been directed to PFOS/PFOA
contamination from RAAF Base Williamtown. However, other Defence facilities
where firefighting foam was extensively used have, or are likely to have, similar
issues. In particular, the situation at Army Aviation Centre Oakey (AACO),
Queensland arising from firefighting foam contamination has been raised with
The committee does not have sufficient evidence to address the other Defence facilities
in this report and intends to explore this aspect in the second part of its
However, the committee emphasises that this does not imply that the
situation at AACO is less serious than RAAF Base Williamtown. It is clear from
the submissions received that many residents in Oakey have been living with the
uncertainty created by possible PFOS/PFOA contamination for a significant
period. The Queensland authorities also appear to be less involved in assisting
the community than their New South Wales equivalents.
This is a concerning situation and the committee will be seeking further
Similarly, due to the timing of the inquiry, the committee has not been
able to fully complete its consideration of the contamination at RAAF Base
Williamtown. There are several significant matters where questions remain. The
committee acknowledges it may need to include further examination of the
situation at RAAF Base Williamtown in the second part of its inquiry.
The immediate impact on the communities around RAAF Base Williamtown has
been profound. The shadow of uncertainty regarding the spread of the pollutants
has created fear and concern, but it has also had real and concrete impacts for
these residents and businesses. This is a crisis for those people who have been
told they have been drinking potentially contaminated water, that they cannot
work or that their property may be worthless. Unfortunately, this situation has
not received a crisis response from government agencies.
A number of submitters and witnesses requested the committee inquire
into the process of community notification regarding the contamination. As the
summarised timeline in Chapter 2 indicates, there is a confusing picture as to
what was known when by various government agencies regarding PFOS/PFOA contamination
at RAAF Base Williamtown. Evolving scientific knowledge of the contaminants and
improved technology for detection meant that an understanding of the extent of
the contamination emerged gradually.
The committee does not consider it productive to attempt to pinpoint
exactly when action should have been taken by Defence and other authorities
regarding possible PFOS/PFOA contamination in water leaving the site. The focus
now should be on providing assistance to those affected by the contamination
and developing policies to ensure this event and future contamination incidents
at Defence sites are effectively managed.
With hindsight, it is clear notification of the community should have
occurred earlier. Further, delays in notification and advice have contributed
to a sense of mistrust in the affected communities regarding the approach of
Defence and other government agencies to the contamination. More importantly,
the lack of timely notification has also prevented members of the affected
communities from taking precautionary measures against drinking water or
consuming products with potentially harmful levels of PFOS/PFOA.
The committee acknowledges that the decisions regarding when to commence
notification of the community were made in an environment of scientific
uncertainty. However, Professor Mark Taylor's interim assessment was that the
Stage 1 Report results indicated that a 'pathway into the human food chain
was highly likely or imminent' and this should have prompted 'field sampling of
waters, soils, biota and domestic livestock to understand the community and
socio-economic activities at risk'. He concluded that the actions of NSW EPA
and other NSW Government agencies were 'responsive, timely and appropriate' in
notifying the community and taking precautionary steps when the draft Stage 2
report was eventually received from Defence.
The community expects Commonwealth Government agencies, such as Defence,
to be responsible custodians of the environment and exemplars in protecting
public health. While there appear to be many points of failure in the response
to PFOS/PFOA contamination at RAAF Base Williamtown, the most acute problem
appears to be a lack of Commonwealth Government leadership and a reluctance to
take full responsibility. The approach of Defence to this issue has been
criticised, but also the unsatisfactory engagement of other Commonwealth
Government agencies, including the Department of the Environment and the
Department of Human Services and Centrelink.
In this context, the committee has made a number of recommendations to
Defence and to the Commonwealth Government more broadly. The first
recommendations focus on access to water issues, the provision of mental health
and counselling services, initial compensation of the fishing community and the
coordination of the response of government agencies. Later recommendations
focus on providing certainty for affected residents and commercial fishermen in
the longer term. Finally, the committee makes recommendations on some related
issues – blood testing and the application of environmental regulations to
An urgent response to immediate need
Access to water
The first priority, clearly, should be the health of affected residents
of Williamtown and Fullerton Cove. Access to uncontaminated water is important
to ensure that there is no further exposure to contaminants for both residents
and their property. The committee welcomes the NSW Government's commitment to
connect affected properties in the investigation area to town water. This is an
important development which will assist residents in the longer term.
However, this NSW Government program will take significant time to
While the program is being undertaken, many residents will continue to rely on bottled
water and their existing domestic water systems. The committee was concerned to
hear that some residents were finding it necessary to drive to local parks to
fill containers with town water. There also appeared to be misunderstandings
and unclear advice provided in relation to the provision of replacement water
tanks to affected residents.
The committee welcomes the commitment of Defence to follow up all the
concerns of affected residents which have been raised during the inquiry, such
as the collection of water bottles once they are used.
However, in the view of the committee, Defence should reassess its provision of
water to affected residents to ensure their needs are being adequately met.
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.
Initial compensation to commercial
Many parts of the fishing industry reliant on access to Fullerton Cove
and Tilligerry Creek have been financially damaged by the fishing closures. These
are members of the community who are in urgent need of financial assistance,
having received reduced or no income since the closures were announced. The
fact that some of the affected fishermen are being forced to rely on local
charities and food vouchers is an indication that the current financial
assistance package is inadequate and unsustainable.
The Commonwealth Government, with the advice of the NSW Department of
Primary Industries, should use previous catch take and income records to
adequately compensate commercial fishermen for the interruption to their businesses
caused by the fishing closures. This initial compensation should cover the
period of the precautionary closures – currently September 2015 to June 2016.
The Commonwealth Government has multiple avenues to provide
discretionary financial assistance to the affected commercial fishermen
including through act of grace payments, ex gratia payments, the Compensation
for Detriment Caused by Defective Administration Scheme or through another
specifically established compensation scheme.
A pragmatic approach should be taken to providing this initial
compensation. Given the unique characteristics of the fishing industry, any
compensation program should be undertaken with the input of local relevant
stakeholders such as the Professional Fishermen's Association, the Commercial
Fishermen's Co-op and the Wild Caught Fishers Coalition.
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.
Additional counselling and support
While this has been a slow-moving disaster, it nonetheless has been a disaster
for those affected. The stress caused by the contamination and its effect on
the mental health of residents and local businesse people was frequently raised
with the committee. It is natural that people fearing for their health,
employment or financial future due to events beyond their control to have deep
feelings of stress, anger, depression and anxiety. All affected residents and
business people should be able to access counselling and assistance if they
The committee welcomes the NSW Government's commitment to 'establish
dedicated local engagement officers in the Williamtown area to provide ongoing
support to residents'. Further, some additional mental health support services
have been established for affected Williamtown residents by Hunter New England
The NSW Department of Primary Industries has also outlined the mental health
assistance and other support services it has provided to members of the local
The emergency management of natural disasters, such as bushfires, often
include additional and specialised mental heath support services for those
impacted. Defence, together with other Commonwealth Government agencies, should
examine how it an effectively provide further counselling and mental health
support services to those people affected by the contamination from RAAF Base
The committee recommend that Defence examine providing additional mental
health and counselling support services to those affected by contamination at
RAAF Base Williamtown.
A taskforce response
While some praised the communications approach of the NSW government
agencies, the evidence received by the committee was sharply critical of
Defence's approach to community engagement.
The Expert Panel and the Committee Reference Group appear to be working
effectively, but a single accessible point of contact appears to be missing.
Affected community members referred to 'getting the run around', having
difficulty finding advice as well as receiving different advice from different
In this context, the committee considers there may be value in considering
the establishment of a joint NSW-Commonwealth Government taskforce to
coordinate assistance and to be a 'one-stop shop' for communication and
engagement with the affected community.
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.
A safe level of human exposure to PFOS and PFOA will be established
through the Human Health Risk Assessment. However, this is unlikely to assist
the affected residents and fishermen in the short term. As further
contamination has not been prevented from leaving the RAAF Base Williamtown,
further movement of the PFOS/PFOA contamination in the ground water or surface
water may exceed whatever safe level of consumption is determined. It is
possible that adequate remediation of the RAAF Base Williamtown could take many
years, or may prove impossible.
In the view of the committee, it is important Defence take a proactive
position on the issue of compensation to provide reassurance to those impacted
by the contaminants. It is not acceptable that Defence intends to wait for a
class action for compensation to be arranged by affected residents and commercial
fishermen. A long drawn out legal process will be wasteful and damaging for all
concerned. Defence and the Commonwealth Government should not wait until the
'the science is in' before committing to providing adequate compensation to
To provide certainty to affected residents and fishermen, the
Commonwealth Government should publicly commit to compensating for losses
caused by PFOS/PFOA contamination from RAAF Base Williamtown. The principle of
'polluter pays' should be upheld by the Commonwealth Government in the same way
it should be expected apply to a private company which caused contamination on
neighbouring properties or waterways.
The committee is of the view that the Commonwealth Government should
commit to the voluntary acquisition of properties which are not longer fit for
purpose due to contamination from PFOS/PFOA arising from the use of
firefighting foam at RAAF Base Williamtown. For example, if a farm relies on
bore water, and that water is found to exceed (or be likely to exceed) safe
levels of PFOS/PFOA the Commonwealth Government should commit to acquire it. If
soil on a residential property is found to be contaminated beyond safe levels,
the Commonwealth Government should commit to acquire the affected property to
allow the owners to relocate, if they wish.
The committee acknowledges that a commitment to adequate compensation
could be costly for the Commonwealth. However, when contamination issues are
resolved, either through remediation of the land or the degradation or
dispersal of the relevant pollutants, the Commonwealth will be able to sell or
utilise the property acquired to recover this cost. Potentially, this process
could take years to complete. Nonetheless, the Commonwealth Government is best
placed to manage the risks of ownership of land which it has played a key role
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.
During the inquiry the precedent of the contamination of Sydney Harbour
and the subsequent buy-out of fishermen was raised several times. The committee
agrees with the recommendation made by Mr Buffier from the NSW EPA that 'if
the results of the human health risk assessment indicate levels which exceed
contemporary health standards, particularly for fish, the Commonwealth should
undertake a buyout of the licences of affected commercial fishermen by the end
The committee also broadly agrees with the Professional Fishermen's Association's
suggestions for 'three programs to provide economic relief to fishers: an
unemployment compensation program (loss of income), a voluntary Fishing
Business (gear) buyout program, and a voluntary retraining program'.
Again, these compensation programs should be undertaken with input from the NSW
Department of Primary Industries, the Professional Fishermen's Association, the
Wild Caught Fishers Coalition and other relevant local stakeholders.
The committee recommends that if PFOS/PFOA contamination from RAAF Base
Williamtown causes permanent or long-term fishing closures, the Commonwealth
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.
Remediation and management
There were conflicting views expressed during the inquiry regarding
options for remediation of RAAF Base Williamtown and the surrounding area. Based
on the evidence received, the committee does not consider it is in a position
to make specific recommendations regarding remediation or management at this
time. The committee notes that Defence has committed to follow-up remediation
strategies as a priority.
Voluntary blood testing
There appears to be an evolving Defence approach to blooding testing for
PFOS/PFOA. While Defence funded blood tests for affected residents of Oakey, it
now relies on NSW Health advice that blood tests are 'not recommended because
they don't predict level of health risk'.
Witnesses from NSW Health were not available to be questioned regarding this
position at the Newcastle public hearing.
While there may not be a strictly medical reason to undertake blood
testing of affected residents, in the view of the committee that should not be
the only factor considered. Voluntary blood testing of affected residents,
tracked over time, could provide other valuable information. For example, the
results of testing could lead to evidence regarding pathways of exposure. It could
also be important in determining subsequent entitlements to compensation for
health outcomes in the future.
If further exposure is avoided, it is understood that these contaminants
will naturally leave the human body over time. It is important that this is
tracked to ensure this process is occurring for the affected residents. Consequently,
the committee's view is that that Defence should fund a program to offer annual
blood testing of those affected residents in the investigation area who wish to
The committee acknowledges that blood testing for levels of PFOS/PFOA,
when medical knowledge regarding the impact of these contaminants is
incomplete, could possibly cause additional anxiety for those persons tested.
Nonetheless, the arguments put by Defence against blood testing were not
convincing. Uncertainty regarding levels of exposure is also causing anxiety
for affected residents. Furthermore, people interested in blood tests are
likely to obtain them privately regardless. As a matter of fairness, when
affected residents are interested in blood testing for PFOS/PFOA, they should
not have to arrange and pay for it themselves.
The committee recommends that Defence arrange and fund a program of blood
tests for residents in the investigation area on an annual basis.
Environmental regulation of contamination
One of the main issues to surface in the evidence to the committee is
the lack of clarity in the application of environmental regulations when contamination
spreads from land controlled by Defence to non-Commonwealth land. This was
illustrated by the evident problems of the NSW EPA in its dealings with
Defence and the apparent absence of involvement of the Department of the
Environment. The committee agrees with the view of Professor Mark Taylor
that '[i]t needs to be clear and transparent to whom the Department of Defence
is accountable for contamination caused by it on non-Commonwealth land'.
The committee intends to explore this issue thoroughly in the second part of
its inquiry. Initially, Defence should publically clarify its own view on the
extent of its obligation and responsibilities to comply with environmental
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
Many people affected by the contamination stated that the worse part of
the situation was the uncertainty regarding the level of contamination and the
impact this contamination would have on their lives. The response of government
agencies, particularly Defence, to this crisis should have been to mitigate
this uncertainty where it could be effectively managed. Unfortunately, an
apparent lack of appreciation of the severity of the situation and a reluctance
to commit to appropriate compensation has meant that Defence, and the
Commonwealth Government, have further damaged the affected community.
The response of Commonwealth Government agencies can be contrasted with
the response of the NSW Government. In particular, the announcement by the NSW Government
that affected residents will be connected to town water, that new testing
equipment will be acquired and additional mental health services will be
provided indicates an understanding of the situation and community concerns
which has been lacking at the federal level. It is difficult to disagree with
Premier Mike Baird's assessment that this can be seen as the NSW Government
addressing a 'void' which should have been filled by the Commonwealth Government.
There are likely to be many other military and civilian airports,
firefighting training sites and as well as other facilities which will have
legacy PFOS/PFOA contamination through the use of firefighting foams. Establishing
an effective policy and legislative framework for resolving this issue should
be a key objective to prevent the crisis which has impacted the community
around RAAF Base Williamtown from being repeated. The committee is concerned
that, if the mistakes made regarding contamination at RAAF Base Williamtown are
not addressed promptly by Defence then they will almost certainly be repeated
at other sites in the future. The committee will continue to examine these
issues in the second part of its inquiry.
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