On being appointed as Minister for Defence in September 2015 I directed the Department of Defence to ensure a comprehensive response to this issue was developed and implemented. In response to that direction, Defence initiated a national investigation program to identify Defence bases where legacy AFFF were used and their potential impact on the surrounding environment.
I understand the uncertainty generated in affected communities. Having visited and met with community members in Williamtown and Oakey, I am acutely aware of the impacts these detections have had on communities surrounding affected bases.
Defence is conducting one of the largest environmental investigations in Australian history. Detailed environmental investigations are underway at 23 sites across Australia. I have instructed Defence to engage and work with impacted communities and state and territory governments about these investigations. To date Defence has held 69 community engagements in potentially affected communities nationwide.
Defence is implementing short- and medium-term management actions, including connecting properties at Williamtown and Oakey to town water, installation of rainwater tanks in rural properties in Katherine, treatment of contaminated ground and surface water and excavation of contaminated sediment and soil. Defence continues to work closely with industry to identify effective remediation and management solutions.
This issue is not limited to Defence sites. Use of products containing PFOS and PFOA were widespread over several decades across Commonwealth, state and territory government agencies, as well as private industry in:
- aviation facilities
- industrial waste facilities
- fuel storage facilities
- general chemical storage
- firefighting authorities and organisations
- scientific laboratories
To the best of my knowledge, no organisation in Australia has taken such comprehensive and wide-scale investigations or funded the breadth of remediation and management solutions as Defence has in managing this issue.
In response to this issue, Defence and other Commonwealth agencies:
- Are connecting around 185 properties in Williamtown and 43 Oakey to town water. Hunter Water has connected 33 properties, with construction commenced for a further 42 properties. In Oakey groundwork is expected to commence in November.
- are undertaking an epidemiological study and voluntary blood testing program in Williamtown and Oakey given their known exposure pathways, as verified by Human Health Risk Assessments that have been completed in these locations.
- have installed water treatment plants in Oakey, Williamtown and Katherine to reduce PFAS concentrations in water. More than 870,000 million litres has been treated at Williamtown, while the treatment plants in Katherine and Oakey are currently being commissioned.
- have appointed Department of Human Services Community Liaison Officers in Oakey, Williamtown and Katherine
Defence continues to work closely with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet-led PFAS taskforce which is developing the whole-of-government response to this issue, including potential support to affected communities.