Inquiry into the management of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination in and around Defence bases.
Submission from EcoNetwork Port Stephens Inc.
6 July 2018
About EcoNetwork Port Stephens
EcoNetwork Port Stephens is a grassroots incorporated association representing a range of environmental interests in the Port Stephens area north of Newcastle. Founded in 1993, EcoNetwork operates as an advocacy network of 27 affiliated community organisations and eco-tourism businesses campaigning for ecological sustainability and the protection of the natural environment, and flora and fauna species. It is non-party political and does not donate to political parties. More detail is at https://www.econetworkps.org/
The PFAS contamination emanating from the RAAF Base Williamtown was known by authorities for many years but only made public in late 2015.
Following the declaration by authorities of an ‘Investigation Area’ – redefined in 2017 as three levels of ‘Management Area’, more than 600 families have lived in fear and uncertainty about the potential health effects, and in financial limbo, many unable to sell or move away, and some with direct loss of income resulting from the declaration of what is locally known as the ‘red zone’.
In the 25 years of EcoNetwork’s existence, the Williamtown PFAS contamination is the worst environmental disaster to affect the Port Stephens area. Most worryingly there appears to be no solution or remedy in sight, with the Commonwealth government, as the acknowledged polluter, seemingly intent on stone-walling and grinding the affected families into submission.
It seems clear that part of the reason for the unsatisfactory response to date is the sheer scale of the PFAS contamination across Australia, including, reportedly, at more than 70 Commonwealth government sites alone. The potential financial liability, both in costs of remedial action and in potential compensation, is so huge that local communities suspect the Commonwealth government simply lacks the will to reach conclusions and admit the scale of the problem.
Several local community groups have battled to keep their battle for answers and remedies in the public eye, with the Newcastle Herald conspicuous for its continuing in-depth coverage. The rest of the local, regional and national media have shown intermittent interest but it is incredibly difficult to maintain the profile which this issue deserves. The recent formation of an alliance of affected communities including at Williamtown in NSW, Katherine in the NT and Oakey in Queensland will hopefully make a difference, but we emphasise that the individuals involved are all volunteers, and under great stress after more than 2 years of uncertainty and unacceptable lack of sympathetic and effective response from authorities.
Hopefully this Committee Inquiry will result in the issue having to be taken more seriously by all levels of government, and we look forward to the Committee’s report shining a light both on the scale of the problem and on the actions that can and should be taken in response.
We next address in turn the seven specific terms of reference for the Inquiry:
a) the extent of contamination in and around Defence bases, including water, soil, other natural assets and built structures;
One of the most worrying aspects of this issue is that the true extent of the contamination appears to remain uncertain, even at those sites such as Williamtown where the problem has been identified for years. Also the fact that PFAS chemicals are apparently still escaping from source sites into the wider communities, with no prospect in the foreseeable future of a permanent solution.
b) the response of, and coordination between, agencies of the Commonwealth Government, including, but not limited to, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Health, the Department of the Environment and Energy, the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force;
We submit that the response of various Commonwealth government agencies has been appalling, The level of co-ordination in respect of addressing the problem has been woeful, whether by design or incompetence. In contrast, there has been an ‘impressive’ level of co-ordination in relation to ‘issues management’, with an almost united front of delay, denial and obfuscation.
The delay of many years in the public, and affected communities, being informed of the contamination long after it was known to authorities is itself is a major scandal which the Committee should investigate.
c) communication and coordination with state and territory governments, local councils, affected local communities and businesses, and other interested stakeholders;
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.
The management of the consultation process has been shameful, with attempts to deny opportunities for input from representatives of the local community groups and refusal to publicly answer key questions. The Department of Defence has recently resorted to the familiar tactic of using one-on-one formats (‘divide and rule’) rather than the earlier town hall-style public meetings where affected families could share each others’ concerns, collectively hear the responses from officials, gain publicity and put maximum pressure on authorities for necessary action. We suspect this change of format was prompted by the Department finding it increasingly uncomfortable having to deal with the level of angst and justifiable anger from affected individuals.
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.
The local authority, Port Stephens Council, has conflicts of interest both through its partial responsibility for the two main drainage channels within the ‘red zone’ and through its ownership of land within the original ‘Investigation Zone’ (but now conveniently excluded from the redefined ‘Management Zone’) on which a sand quarry project has recently been approved, which will be a significant source of revenue for the Council (we note that the local community groups have appealed the consent decision, partially on the grounds that insufficient weight was given to the risks from disturbance of contaminated soil and water).
We welcome the recent decision of Port Stephens Council to offer some rate relief to affected ratepayers, although this goes no-where near fully addressing the financial impact (see under (g) below).
d) 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;
We understand that many of the families in the Williamtown area remain thoroughly disillusioned with the testing regime. The arrangements for blood tests were slow and bureaucratic and relied on individuals proactively seeking tests – by the time tests were offered many people had lost confidence in the authorities or were understandably fearful of knowing the levels of PFAS in their bodies. The implications of the test results have not been well explained and there appears to be no long-term program for monitoring changes over time, despite expert evidence that there may well be continued exposure for decades.
The conclusions of the health studies that have been carried out to date in the Williamtown area lack credibility. They appear to have largely been based on desk reviews of selected overseas studies, not taking full account of more adverse findings, and there have also been reports of more recent studies with more alarming findings that have not yet even been acknowledged or addressed. A local investigation relating to an alleged cancer cluster was arguably methodologically flawed.
e) the adequacy of Commonwealth and state and territory government environmental and human health standards and legislation, and any other relevant legislation;
The standards adopted remain well short of international best practice based on the ‘precautionary principle’, and Australia has yet to catch up with the other signatories to the Stockholm Convention in banning the use of PFAS
f) remediation works at the bases;
The extent to which remediation work has been undertaken remains uncertain and shrouded in secrecy. All the available evidence points to the conclusion that contaminated water continues to escape into the local environment at Williamtown, and we question whether the continuation of civil works associated with the RAAF Base expansion may have delayed remediation or even contributed to further contamination.
g) what consideration has been given to understanding and addressing any financial impact to affected businesses and individuals.
The Commonwealth government, which has accepted responsibility as the polluter, has made little or no effort to genuinely understand and address the financial impact of affected communities, businesses and individuals. The potential costs of the necessary compensation may be very substantial, but minimising cost should not be a primary concern – the Commonwealth government needs to do the right thing.
At Williamtown, three years after the contamination was publicly revealed, hundreds of families and dozens of businesses remain in financial ‘limbo’ with their property assets devalued, additional expenses and in some cases loss of income. Commonwealth authorities appear to have made no serious effort to even collect comprehensive information about the financial impacts, let alone address the issue of compensation.
The Department of Defence set up a very basic system for accepting claims for financial assistance in the Williamtown area in 2016, but residents have found this very bureaucratic and completely inadequate – we understand only a few claims have been settled.
The Commonwealth’s lack of action on compensation appears to be resting partly on the fact that some residents have commenced legal class actions. We submit that this is not acceptable – individuals have felt it necessary to take these actions mainly because of the lack of an adequate response, and the fact that they have exercised their legal rights should not be used an excuse for not providing a proper financial assessment and compensation scheme.
At Williamtown, the failure to make significant compensation available is seen in stark contrast to the expenditure of billions of dollars on expansion of the RAAF Base and the imminent purchase of dozens of Joint Strike Fighters to be based there.
_________EcoNetwork – affiliated groups & eco-businesses________
A grassroots, community-focused network
National Parks Association (Hunter Branch) Inc. Port Stephens Koalas Inc.
Tomaree Bird Watchers Tilligerry Habitat Inc.
Port Stephens Park Residents Association Inc. Soldiers Point/Salamander Bay Tidy Towns Inc.
Myall Koala & Environmental Group Inc. Pindimar/Bundabah Community Association
Port Stephens Native Flora Gardens Inc. Mambo Wanda Wetlands Reserve, Landcare Inc.
North Arm Cove Residents Association Inc. Ocean & Coastal Care Initiatives (OCCI) Inc.
Soldiers Point Community Group Inc. South Tomaree Community Association
Shoal Bay Community Association Inc. Wanderers Retreat.
Salamander Recycling Inc. Destination Port Stephens Inc.
Imagine Cruises (Ecotourism accredited) Boomerang Park Action Group Inc.
Port Stephens Marine Park Association Inc. Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters
On Water Marine Services Pty Ltd Mambo–Wanda Wetlands Conservation Grp.
Tomaree Residents and Ratepayers Assn Inc. Native Animal Trust Fund Inc.
Williamtown and Surrounds Res. Action Group. Inc.
EcoNetwork is affiliated state-wide with the Nature Conservation Council of NSW
and with the NSW Better Planning Network.
For an eco-oriented culture, sustainable communities
and the transfer of intact natural systems to future generations.