Radio interview, ABC Darwin 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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29 August 2023

SUBJECTS: US Marine Corps Osprey incident; PFAS contamination; PFAS consultation forums in Darwin & Katherine.

ADAM STEER, HOST: Last night, the Federal Assistant Minister for Defence, Matt Thistlethwaite, hosted a community consultation session in Darwin about PFAS contamination around defence bases. Tonight, he's heading to Katherine to speak to locals living with the impacts of the chemical. Matt Thistlethwaite, Assistant Defence Minister. Good morning. Welcome to the program. Before we get into the PFAS contamination, the three US Marines who died on Sunday's Osprey crash on the Tiwi Islands have been identified this morning, Captain Eleanor V LeBeau, who was 29, Corporal Spencer R Collart, who was 21 and Major Tobin J Lewis, who was 37. Three Marines remain in Darwin Hospital with one in critical condition, two in a stable condition. How does it feel for you this morning as Assistant Federal Minister for Defence and, of course, as a human, to hear those names and just how young they were?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Good morning, Adam. Thanks for having me on the show. It certainly hits home the risks that service personnel take when they put on the uniform. And there's a great bond and mateship that exists between Australian forces and our counterparts from the United States that goes back to World War II, of course. So, we offer our sincere condolences to the families of Captain LeBeau, Corporal Collart and Major Lewis today, and we offer our support and our thoughts to our mates in the Marines who are obviously hurting at the moment. And it's a very sad day for both our nations.

STEER: Investigations are, of course, underway to determine the cause of the accident. I wonder, how concerned are you about the ongoing use of the US Osprey aircraft which some Australian troops fly in as part of their duties?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, the investigations obviously are continuing. The accident occurred at 9:40am on Sunday morning and it did involve a V-22 Osprey which crashed off Melville Island. Obviously, the authorities need to be given the space and the time to conduct that investigation. The fleet's been grounded in the wake of that. But I think it's important to point out that no Australian troops, or indeed US troops, are able to fly on aircraft unless that aircraft is certified as safe and the aircraft undertake regular maintenance upgrades and routine cheques to ensure that they are safe. So, that will continue, of course, into the future. But at the moment, the fleet is grounded.

STEER: I mean, the aircraft may have been maintained, they might get their certification, but as you are fully aware, the US Osprey aircraft have been involved in a number of accidents. I think in the last I don't know if it's five years or something, I think 60 people have died flying in the aircraft. Are you concerned, though, that Australians are required to fly in that aircraft, whether they've got their certificate of safety or not?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, Australians would only be involved in joint exercises and predominantly Australians don't fly on that type of aircraft because they're not a major part of the Australian fleet. We tend to use Chinooks for transporting troops rather than the Osprey. However, there are occasions when there are joint exercises that are done and of course, as I mentioned, all aircraft have to be certified and undertake regular maintenance checks to ensure that they are safe and that Australian troops can be involved in flying on them.

STEER: All right, let's move. While you're in the top end, because you're here to talk about PFAS, what is the aim of speaking to locals in Darwin and in Katherine?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, I held a forum last night in Darwin. There were about 20 locals that turned up, predominantly those that live around the RAAF Base. I'm here mainly to apologise to communities for the inconvenience that PFAS contamination coming from Defence bases throughout the NT has caused to local communities, the inconvenience for landholders, but also to outline the important work that Defence is doing to remediate the land and to reduce the impact on landholders. And we went through that with the local community last night.

STEER: What stories did you hear from the locals?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look, predominantly people are concerned about the restrictions that are placed on their properties. And those restrictions generally come from the state and territory, EPAs, Environment Protection Authorities and they're precautionary. So, for instance, last night there was discussion around the amount of fish that you can consume. If you catch fish from Rapid Creek, Ludmilla Creek or Sadgroves Creek, if you grow vegetables on your property, there are restrictions on the amount of vegetables that you can eat and indeed, livestock that's fed and watered on contaminated land. But importantly, Defence is remediating the land that is contaminated. So, there's five major source areas on the RAAF Base at Darwin and they predominantly relate to areas where firefighting foams were used in the past. So, you're talking about fire training grounds, fire stations, fuel storage areas and the like. And to date, at RAAF Base Darwin, Defence have remediated approximately 4000 cubic metres of soil. And that involves a process called stabilisation, where they dig up the contaminated soil, they activate it with carbon and then it's replaced in the ground and that captures the PFAS contamination and ensures that it doesn't spread when it's affected by rainwater. So, that's the process and we're working across the base to ensure that that remediation takes place over the coming years.

STEER: Well, will that remediation then go towards the homes that have been affected? Will you remediate people's backyards?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: So, the source of the contamination is generally on the base and the testing there's quite a few wells that are used to test on the base and around the base and that involves some surrounding properties. And the contamination levels are highest on the base. They tend not to be as high in the surrounding properties. The effects on surrounding properties are generally through surface water flowing off the base when it rains and into the creeks. So, it's mainly in the creeks where you get the contamination that eventually flow into the harbour and that's where a lot of the restrictions are. So, people living around the base generally don't have higher levels of contamination on their land, but they do have restrictions on what they can gather from the creeks.

STEER: You are on ABC Radio Darwin. Adam Steer with you this morning. Matt Thistlethwaite is the Federal Assistant Minister for Defence. So, how much PFAS is currently flowing into Ludmilla and Rapid Creeks from the RAAF Base in Darwin?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, it's tested twice a year, once after the wet season, once after the dry season, and there's varying levels of contamination and the highest levels are on the base at the source. Generally, where that firefighting took place, then it tends to diminish the further away you get from that. But as I said, the issue is that PFAS can be transported off the base when it rains and the water drains into those various creeks and that's where you get the ongoing testing. And the process of stabilisation, of remediating the land at its source will, over time, ensure that the amount of contaminated water that flows off the base is reduced. And to date, the testing indicates that that process is working at other bases throughout the country where this process has been undertaken for a number of years. So, over time, hopefully, the contamination will reduce.

STEER: Well, how long does PFAS chemicals take to break down, do you know?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: They take a very long time to break down. They're known as the forever chemical and that's the problem and that's why you really have to try and contain it at the source. And the investigations that are undertaken in the wake of a stabilisation process indicate that it's a very good method of trapping the PFAS contamination at the source to ensure that it doesn’t flow off the RAAF Base and that reduces the contamination that flows further down through the creeks. So, that's the process at the moment, there's new technology that's being developed ever year that upgrades that and Defence is constantly looking at how they can make that technology better and ensure that the stabilisation process is more effective.

STEER: Right now, you're on the road to Katherine, where locals were left devastated back in 2017 when they learned the full extent of PFAS contamination affecting their properties and potentially the health of their families and young kids. Around this time last year, Defence told the town of Katherine that PFAS was continuing to spread and was contaminating bores relied upon for drinking. What's been done since then exactly?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's right. I'm heading to Katherine tonight. I'm doing a PFAS community forum there. There has been some recent testing that indicated that PFAS was found in a number of bores around the base. So, in those areas, obviously, people are given alternate water sources, so Defence will pay for water tanks or potable water to ensure that water is safe. There's a water treatment plant that's been constructed around the base there to treat the contaminated water and they're treating approximately a million litres a day. There's a more permanent system that's being introduced that will be treating about 10 million megalitres a day and there's continuous sampling that's going on there to ensure that the water supply is safe and properties that have been sampled have been offered bottled water supply to ensure that they're safe. So, that's an ongoing project and we'll make sure that we work with those communities to ensure that their drinking water supply is safe.

STEER: Assistant Minister, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks for having me on, Adam.


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