Radio interview, ABC Sydney Mornings

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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23 August 2023

SUBJECTS: PFAS contamination; PFAS community consultation forum in Richmond; Sydney Airport.

SARAH MACDONALD, HOST: Have you seen those pictures of kids playing in firefighting foam? This is what I want to talk about now, what they were playing in was PFAS, it does cause great shock now given what we know about the chemicals involved, Defence has identified that the RAAF Base at Richmond is contaminated with PFAS in areas where the firefighting foam was used, stored or disposed of, and in soil and water flowing through those areas. Communities have been compensated after class actions across the country. But what about the cleanup and the safety? Now, for those who live in the area, last night, Defence held community sessions. Matt Thistlethwaite was the MP who was there. He's the Assistant Minister for Defence and also the local MP, Susan Templeman, the Member for Macquarie. And Matt Thistlethwaite joins us now on ABC Radio Sydney. Good morning to you.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Good morning, Sarah. Thanks for having me on.

MACDONALD: What happened last night? I heard it got a little fiery.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It did get a little bit testy at times, but that's completely understandable. I apologised to landholders that have been affected by PFAS contamination for the inconvenience that's been caused to their lives. We know that there's an issue on several Defence bases throughout the country that comes from the use of legacy firefighting foam that contained PFAS and it flows off the RAAF Base there at Richmond. Typically, when they get heavy rain through surface water, it gets into the drainage system and eventually flows into the Hawkesbury River. So, I've apologised, but I've importantly outlined the actions that Defence is taking to remediate the problem and clean it up.

MACDONALD: Well, it's hard to clean it up if it's getting into our river system and it's in the groundwater, isn't it?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, thankfully they do testing there around the base every six months and there's not too much evidence that it's in the groundwater, it's mainly on the surface, so when it rains it travels off the base through the drainage system, so the remediation is to treat it at the source. There are four identified areas there where there's higher concentrations of PFAS and they mainly relate to areas where firefighting training took place in the fire station. And the remediation process is that they dig up the soil. So, the last process was 8000 tonnes of soil was dug up, it had activated carbon inserted into it, it's then replaced back into the ground and the evidence is that that will capture the PFAS and stop it getting into the groundwater. And so far the last project is working there and there's three further areas where that will occur over the next twelve months.

MACDONALD: Right. So, that these other areas need to be done. I mean, it must be alarming people who live near the Hawkesbury hearing this after rain, it's going down. Are there warnings about people swimming and fishing in the Hawkesbury, particularly after rain, especially surrounding this PFAS?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: In certain areas, yeah, there's hundreds of sites that Defence test in and around the base and that involves drilling down into the soil. And the higher concentrations, thankfully, are confined to the base, but there are lower concentrations that are identified off the base and it's hoped that over time, the remediation project, by stabilising the land on the base, will diminish that concentrations that we're finding off the base and hopefully improve water quality. I should also say that in 2019 Sydney Water tested the water in the area and that they found that there was no danger to health for people living in the vicinity. Last night there was a request made for that testing to be updated because of the recent flooding that occurred in the Hawkesbury over the last couple of years. So, I've pledged to write to the NSW Water Minister, Rose Jackson, to ask her to get Sydney Water to do further testing, just to update residents and assure them that they're drinking water and the recreation waters around the area are safe.

MACDONALD: Gosh. Well, that's sometime after those floods.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, well, it is. And I'm assured by Defence and Sydney Water that the areas that they've identified indicate that on the last testing it was safe. But I appreciate that there's concern in the community and we'll seek to update that as quickly as possible.

MACDONALD: You're on ABC Radio Sydney. Sarah McDonald with you at twenty six minutes past ten and the Assistant Minister for Defence and the MP for Kingsford Smith, Matt Thistlethwaite, is with us. He was at this meeting last night at Richmond, perhaps you were too. You can let us know what you thought on 1300 222 702. Defence was answering questions, as was the Assistant Minister for Defence and the local MP for Macquarie, Susan Templeman. I did get a text here from Collette, who's at Loftus asking about the fire retardant that we use now over fires and whether that's toxic to soil, animals or humans. I've always been worried about this. She says, is there any risk further down the track of what we're using now?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: So, I can only speak on behalf of Defence and they've phased out the use of firefighting foams that contain PFAS, particularly for training. I am advised that there are certain circumstances where it is still used, but only in emergency circumstances. So, for instance, if there was a plane that would have crashed or something like that, it may be used, but generally it's being phased out. Of course, it was used beyond Defence. It was used by state firefighting services, by aviation firefighters, and I can't comment on whether or not they've phased it out or not, but I think that we're awake to the risks of using PFAS and it's being phased out, thankfully.

MACDONALD: Right, well, yeah, because I did get a message here for someone who's worked in fire protection for 40 years and wondering if it's also at civilian airports. For example, Sydney Airport. Is that in your electorate? Have you looked into that?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, Sydney Airport is in my electorate and there could be broader implications for not only Sydney Airport, but other airports, civil aviation airports throughout the country, and indeed domestic fire stations where these chemicals were used widely. I think that Defence have been forward acting and they've sought to engage proactively with communities as soon as they identified the problem. And that forum that I was at last night was one of 150 that Defence have conducted throughout the country. There are about 28 bases where they've identified high levels of PFAS and they're engaging with those communities on a proactive basis.

MACDONALD: And that's why Richmond's one of them here in Sydney. But do you ask questions of Sydney Airport too, given it's in your electorate?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: There was a recent study, I understand, that was conducted and it didn't find any significant levels of PFAS in surrounding suburbs. However, that's something that needs to be continually updated and I think that there's going to be broader implications from the work that Defence is doing. There are also international examples that we're now starting to see. There's a fair bit of research being done in Europe and the United States into the effects of PFAS and we're closely watching those as well.

MACDONALD: Interesting. And I have got a message here saying, is the Hawkesbury safe for swimming and fishing?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, at the moment, the advice of Sydney Water is that it is, but I'll seek to have that advice updated through further testing, just to reassure communities.

MACDONALD: Especially after rain, I would imagine. Thank you so much for your time.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: My pleasure, Sarah. Thank you.


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