Radio Interview, ABC Perth Mornings with Nadio Mitsopoulos

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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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26 October 2023

SUBJECTS: PFAS contamination; RAAF Base Pearce / Bullsbrook; Independent Review of land uses around key Defence bases impacted by PFAS contamination.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS, HOST: Well, for years people in West Bullsbrook have been living in a kind of limbo, if you like. They've been using bottled water for pretty much everything because their bores have been contaminated with PFAS. Now these are those forever chemicals and they're actually contained in firefighting foam that was being used at the nearby RAAF Air Base until it was phased out about ten years ago. Now, you would know this story well, it's been going on for a long, long time. The government, the Defence Force have been trying to deal with this. There's been a class action that has been settled at around $130 million. Finally as well, confirmation that fresh water is on the way. Now, the Assistant Defence Minister, Matt Thistlethwaite, last night told residents, more than 200 of them, will finally get connected to freshwater. I had a chat to the Assistant Minister a little earlier this morning.

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

MITSOPOULOS: So, what were you able to tell the residents of Bullsbrook last night?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we gave them an update on the remediation work that's going on the base to stabilise the PFAS contamination, but also the government's commitment to connect properties to town water. And there'll be 205 properties over the next couple of years that will be connected to town water and we'll get the option to have freshwater connections and alleviate the need for them to continue to use bottled water. So, we announced that last night and we've also announced that the Defence Department will pay for those connections and for the water costs for the next eight years after those connections are made for those residents.

MITSOPOULOS: Okay, so those 205 properties, is that everybody that's been affected by this?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It's everyone that has been affected where there is significant levels of PFAS contamination due to movements in surface water off the base. All of those properties surrounding the base that have been affected will get the option to connect to this town water. And there are 164 different monitoring sites around the base and on the base. And these are regularly looking at the levels of PFAS contamination in the land around the base. And it's on that basis that we determined that there are 205 properties that are affected.

MITSOPOULOS: And what are the levels at now?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look, it varies to degrees. Obviously, the closer to the base a property is, the higher the level of concentration of PFAS and obviously it's related to rain events as well. So, the properties that are further away tend to not be as badly affected as those that are close by.

MITSOPOULOS: Okay, now, you said it would take a few years. What is the time frame for getting those people connected to fresh water?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, so the contracts are about to be awarded and towards the beginning of next year, residents will start to see some of the construction work begin. And it's a 14 kilometre pipeline and by mid-2024, properties in the West Bullsbrook area will start to be connected to the line, with the work continuing right through till about mid-2025, when the final residents in South Bullsbrook should be able to connect up. So, over the course of the next 18 months, we're hopeful that all of the properties will get the option to connect to that town water.

MITSOPOULOS: Has anyone refused to do that?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look, letters have gone out to all of the residents and the option period to take up that offer ends at the end of this year. So, once those letters start returning and people indicate that they want to be connected, the ones that haven't indicated whether or not they'd like a connection, Defence are going to contact them directly asking if they want the connection. The important thing is that residents should consider at least getting the connection made to the water. You don't have to actually take up the option, but when the contractors come past a person's property, you've basically got only one chance to have that connection put into your property. Once they go by later on down the track is very difficult and costly to come back and do a connection. So, you might not even want to take the option up, but you could at least get the connection. And once those connections are done, then Defence will pay for plumbers to come in and do the remainder of the piping and such to the individual properties and connect people up.

MITSOPOULOS: And typically you then also said they would be getting free water for eight years, is that right?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's right. Defence will pay the costs of the connections and the water costs for individual households for the next eight years after those connections are made.

MITSOPOULOS: Is that a form of compensation, given this has taken so, so long? I mean, this has been almost a decade.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah. Last night I apologised to residents for the inconvenience that's been caused. We know that this problem emanates from PFAS contamination on the base. It's not unique. Unfortunately, there are 24 bases throughout the country where we've got situations such as this with local residents being affected. And really, those payments are an indicator that Defence realises that they're at fault and it's a form of payment to ensure that there's a bit of goodwill there from Defence. It's not compensation as such, people can go into actions against the Commonwealth and that's occurred there's. The Haswell class action that's recently been settled and verified by the court and those payments will start to flow to local residents into the future.

MITSOPOULOS: My guest this morning on ABC Radio Perth and WA is Matt Thistlethwaite, who is the Assistant Minister for Defence. Did the issue of the value of properties come up at all last night? Because a concern is also that there are people trying to sell their properties who can't, because of this contamination. Do they deserve compensation at all?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: That didn't come up directly last night. Most of the conversation was about the water connections and the options for residents. If residents feel that they have suffered an economic loss, then they have the option, of course, of an action against the Commonwealth. And some of those residents that were involved last night have been involved in the action known as the Haswell class action. And that's an option for residents. And Defence has settled many of those actions against the Commonwealth throughout the country and no doubt there'll be more that will continue. The second point I'd like to make is that the Labor Party, in the lead up to the last election, made a commitment that if we were elected, we'd conduct an independent inquiry into land use around defence bases contaminated by PFAS. And that inquiry is actually occurring at the moment and it's being run by Jim Varghese, an expert who's advised government on other issues in the past. And there's a public submission process that's just about to open. It opens on the 23 October and runs through to the 3 December. So, anyone in the country can make a submission to that inquiry on their views on what the government should do with contaminated land around PFAS sites.

MITSOPOULOS: What's your view on that? I mean, are we talking potentially buffer zones having houses a certain amount of kilometres away? I mean, what's your view on what that might look like in the future?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I don't want to pre-empt the outcomes of the inquiry, obviously, but the inquirer will be looking into options such as rezoning of land around Defence bases, the opportunities to establish Defence innovation and industry precincts around bases and working with state and local government authorities to rezone land. And that provides options for residents to recognise a value uplift in their property and perhaps sell if they want to. So, they're all of the options and issues that are being looked at by the inquirer. He'll hand his report to the government in February and then the government will look at those recommendations and act on those as quickly as possible.

MITSOPOULOS: Are you comfortable with that? I mean, is it safe to be building on that land?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look, it's up to residents, really. I think it's about providing local residents with as many options as possible to alleviate some of the inconvenience that they've suffered.

MITSOPOULOS: This is about trying to increase the value of their properties.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It is about trying to give them options to increase the value of their properties if they wish. So, some of them, obviously, may wish to stay and continue to live where they do, and that option should be available as well. The Commonwealth won't do anything that's unsafe, of course. There's quite a bit of regulation that exists around PFAS contamination and the Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, recently announced that the government is looking to ban four of the PFAS group of chemicals, the most dangerous ones, and there's a consultation going on around that at the moment as well.

MITSOPOULOS: But what it means, just so I'm clear here, there may be an option, and I appreciate you don't want to pre-empt what comes out of this inquiry, but there may be an option for people living in Bullsbrook, for instance, to potentially sell their home down the track and not make a loss.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I don't want to give people false hope. That may be an option and it would require, obviously, the cooperation and the actions of local government authorities in particular, and state governments as well. And Jim Varghese’s meeting with those state government authorities and local government authorities, as well as local EPAs and other organisations that have an interest in this issue.


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