Additional Comments from the Australian Greens
Following a request from Williamtown residents, the Australian Greens
initiated the inquiry into contamination at and around RAAF Base Williamtown.
This inquiry was expanded into an examination of contamination of sites where
firefighting foams have been used across the country, including at Australian
Defence Force facilities. These Additional Comments complement the Additional
Comments on the inquiry's Part (a) report into the Williamtown contamination.
Throughout the inquiry the Australian Greens have urged the Department
of Defence and other government authorities to be thorough, transparent and
proactive about their plans for remediation of the affected areas, health
support for local residents and workers and financial support for local
residents and businesses. As was the case in Williamtown, residents at Oakey in
Queensland, around the Gold Coast Airport, at Darwin and at other sites have
relied on self-organised community action groups to gather information about
how the contamination may affect them.
The Australian Greens believe that the Liberal-National Government could
have done much more to coordinate a national response to the crisis with a
focus on community support and care. A theme of much of the evidence from
members of the community has been a lack of leadership from the Commonwealth
Government. The Department of Defence, while accepting responsibility for the
contamination, has taken little responsibility for managing and responding to
the crisis that many local residents and workers near contaminated sites are
now living with on a daily basis.
The pressure and anguish many locals are feeling is compounded by the
refusal of the Commonwealth Government to provide health tests, compensate for
lost income and arrange property buy ups where necessary. The Department of
Defence’s response to the recommendations from the inquiry's Part (a) report
into the Williamtown contamination has been disappointing.
Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination
The Australian Greens agree with the committee, the National Toxics
Network, the Fire Protection Association Australia and other expert witnesses
that the Commonwealth government should ratify PFOS as a persistent organic
pollutant under the Stockholm Convention.
The Australian Greens are very concerned about public statements
regarding the health effects of PFOS and PFOA. The New South Wales Department
of Health has advised the local community that 'Whether PFOS or PFOA causes
adverse health effects in humans is currently unknown.'
Similar statements have been made in the in-house Department of Defence
These statements are misleading and represent either a misunderstanding or
ignorance of the international literature and expert advice provided on these
The industry has already moved to stop using these chemicals. PFOS has
not been sold in Australia for over a decade, but there is no legislation to
prevent continued use of old stock. The European Union (EU) has banned the
marketing and use of PFOS since 2008 and its use in 28 countries in 2011 due to
its persistent, toxic properties.
The University of Queensland was commissioned by Airservices Australia
to examine PFC levels. They found that the US population has around 15 parts
per million PFCs in their bloodstream and Australians have around 30 parts per
million on average. Firefighters have roughly 60 parts per million and some
factory workers have around 800 parts per million. National Toxics Network
senior advisor, Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, gave evidence that the dangers of
perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), including PFOS and PFOA have been established
since the 1970s. The Australian Greens are particularly concerned that the
Department of Defence is not providing their own workers with adequate,
accurate information and support, and is not consulting current and former
Defence personnel and other affected workers as key stakeholders in this issue.
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 4). The Australian Greens agree with
the committee and make the following recommendations.
The Australian Greens recommend that the Department of the Environment
undertake an immediate recall of existing stocks of PFOS and PFOA based firefighting
The Australian Greens recommend that the Department of the Environment
conduct an urgent review of the chemical foams that have replaced PFOS and PFOA
and establish an inventory of all PFC based foams.
The Australian Greens recommend that residents and workers who have been
exposed to PFOS be provided with adequate information and regular blood tests.
The Australian Greens recommend that urgent regulatory action be taken
to ensure people are protected from ongoing exposures to perfluorinated
compounds in consumer products, in food and in drinking water.
The Australian Greens recommend that the Commonwealth Government engage
with key stakeholders to develop a holistic policy regarding the use and
implementation of replacement foams. Replacement foams should be assessed based
on their performance and reliability, their potential impacts upon workers and
other users, and their potential environmental and toxicological impacts.
Australia ratified the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic
Pollutants in 2004 but refrained from ratifying additions to appendices of
2009, which includes matters relating to PFOS, until a further assessment was
made. This process has been very slow and it was only this year that public
The United Nation's Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee’s (UN
POPs Review Committee) Risk Profile of PFOS, published in 2006, emphasised the
inherent properties of PFOS as a highly persistent chemical with reproductive,
transgenerational toxicity. The UN POPs Review Committee described the
immunotoxicity of PFOS in humans as serious and warranting international
At the October 2015 meeting of the UN POPs Review Committee, committee
members concluded that PFOA met all criteria for further evaluation as a POP. The
UN POPs Review Committee concluded that the probable adverse effects in humans
include increased risk of testicular and kidney cancer, thyroid dysfunction,
and many others. Children are especially likely to be affected. It is not known
exactly what concentration of these chemicals will produce specific effects,
but direct causation is not a responsible benchmark for government action.
The Australian Greens recommend that the Commonwealth Government
fast-track the inclusion of PFOS and PFOA in the list of pollutants that
Australia is committed under international law to prohibit, and for which it is
required to have a strategy for remediation for past use.
Time for remediation
Thorough investigation and remediation of environmental contamination is
long overdue. There has been some work in this area. Airservices Australia has
been doing research and developing remediation projects. Research has shown
that the use of RemBind to bind chemicals in the soil can work. It locks the
chemicals into an inert state so they do not readily move into water or other
PFOS may be present in sewage, which means that after treatment the
effluent could still be contaminated. How to manage this issue has yet to be
determined and more funding is needed to expand remediation research.
Airservices Australia is negotiating with the New South Wales Environment
Protection Authority to allow remediated soil to go to landfill.
The Australian Greens recommend that regulatory agencies ensure that
contamination sites are cleaned up.
The Australian Greens recommend that the Commonwealth Government fund
research and development to test different remediation systems.
The Australian Greens recommend that, in the absence of national
Australian standards, the United States Environmental Protection Agency levels
be adopted for drinking water and soil contamination.
While the Department of the Environment can investigate impacted sites,
the grandfathering clause of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity
Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) would probably apply. This means any
practice that was occurring at the time the EPBC Act came into force in 2000
could be deemed to be exempt from further approval. As the majority of the
impacted airports and defence bases were established before the EPBC Act came
into force, the EPBC Act would be used by the authorities to justify nil or
minimal action in response to contamination linked to firefighting foams.
Gold Coast Airport
There have been reports of PFOS and PFOA contamination in Gold Coast
Airport runoff and groundwater that enters Cobaki Broadwater, an environmental
heritage area. With reference to the Major Development Plan of Gold Coast
Airport, the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development has
acknowledged local PFOS and PFOA contamination. Despite the fact that the
Department of the Environment also acknowledges the contamination the next step
is still unclear.
Interim guidelines were developed with Airservices. However, Airservices
commented on 'the absence of nationally agreed trigger standards and
remediation process. We will need to consider these when they will be available
– as to what actions will be required'. With regard to Gold Coast Airport, the
advice concerning contamination was conveyed to the Minister for the
Environment. It was then up to them to consider 'if they had identified
specific conditions that they felt should be applied'.
Great Barrier Reef
In response to a question about PFOS and PFOA contamination, the
Department of the Environment stated: 'any potential contamination of the reef
in relation to PFOS has not been brought to our attention as a matter for investigation'.
This is despite previous evidence that toxic firefighting foam from Townsville
is likely to have run off into the Reef.
A Sydney Morning Herald report, published in 2008, suggested that
contamination was initially detected at Darwin Airport in 2003. After a
community group in Darwin agitated for action, it was reported that the
Department of Defence would investigate the contamination at RAAF Base Tindal
and RAAF Base Darwin. Journalists have noted that there is no publically
available evidence of any Department of Defence investigations at these sites
and the Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority has refused to
provide the results of tests conducted at Rapid Creek and Ludmilla Creek in
Speaking to Darwin reporters, the Assistant Defence Minister, the Hon Michael
McCormack MP, told reporters in April 2016 that there was 'no link whatsoever'
between PFOS and PFOA and adverse human health effects. This is in direct
contradiction to the evidence provided to this committee by scientific and
toxicology experts and to advice from the International Agency for Research on
Many of the issues associated with a lack of government leadership and
support appear to be reflected for residents living near the base at Oakey.
Advice has been provided to the community about drinking bore water but there
has not been adequate advice or support beyond that about safe use of water for
other purposes. Many members of the community have expressed similar concerns
and anxieties to those who have been affected by the contamination in
The Australian Greens note that the draft policy for the provision of
firefighting foams developed by the Queensland Government has been criticised
by stakeholders as being inadequate and not ‘holistic’ enough.
The Australian Greens recommend that fair and equitable compensation
processes for affected communities be initiated.
The Australian Greens recommend that the Department of Defence or
Airservices Australia, depending on who has jurisdiction, complete a risk
assessment of each of the impacted airports (including the provision of
information regarding testing, containment and forward action plans) as a
matter of priority.
The Australian Greens recommend that the risk assessment of each
impacted airport be made available publicly to each of the airport
owners/managers as soon as possible so that airport workers, the local
community and other stakeholders are fully aware of the health and
The Australian Greens recommend that the Department of Defence and
Airservices comply with their environmental obligations and ensure that they
take primary responsibility and leadership in managing and remediating any
contamination that has occurred as a result of operations on their sites (past
and present) throughout Australia.
The Australian Greens recommend that the Commonwealth Government
finalise and release its policy framework and interim standards on PFOS and
PFOA management as soon as possible in order to end the regulatory uncertainty
and allow for environmental and health concerns to be resolved.
Extent of contamination
Considering the same chemicals may have been used by professional and
volunteer fire authorities throughout Australia, contamination problems may not
be restricted to airports or Defence bases but could extend at least to fire
stations or other sites where the chemicals were used repeatedly for training.
This means that fire fighters repeatedly involved in operations or training
where the chemicals were used could suffer high levels of contamination.
The Australian Greens recommend that this inquiry undertake further work
to obtain as accurate a picture as possible of the potential scale and extent
of the contamination and any problems the contamination may have caused, across
all sectors and activities where the chemicals were (or still are) in use, in
Senator Lee Rhiannon
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