How to compensate people hit by PFAS chemicals leaking from military bases has been debated in Federal Parliament this week.
One Nation’s Senator Brian Burston raised the issue as an urgent item in the Senate.
Senator Burston said there was an urgent need to fix water supplies and compensate those affected.
“The no. 1 priority of any government is to protect its citizens. However, what is happening now is that the very department that is meant to protect us is doing the exact opposite,” he said.
“Residents are desperate. They cannot sell their properties as they are now worthless.
“I'm livid at the lack of action and compassion being shown by this government to the communities surrounding the RAAF Williamtown base, in Oakey, and now in Katherine, which are severely affected by this PFAS contamination. Pauline Hanson's One Nation has offered a number of solutions to the government for funding the work on remediation, plus voluntary buyouts, but they seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
“I have consistently been calling for the government to immediately start the process of voluntary buyouts to help those affected residents get on with their lives. As I suggested in a question to the defence minister late last year, at the very least the government should immediately set up a fund similar to the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. Whilst I know it may be a drop in the ocean compared to what the residents need, at least it may alleviate the immense financial burden these residents are under and show them that the government does care about them.”
The head of the government's PFAS taskforce, Liberal Senator James McGrath, responded by saying a nationally consistent approach for responding to PFAS contamination is being considered by Council of Australian Governments to ensure all levels of government cooperate for the benefit of all affected communities across Australia.
“It is also essential that any action by the Commonwealth be very clearly based on evidence, proportionate to the level of risk and fiscally sustainable into the future for all governments and private industry.”
Senator McGrath again said there was currently no consistent evidence that PFAS is harmful to human health.
“So more research is required before definitive statements can be made on causality or risk, which is what we are doing. We're undertaking the $12.5 million national research program into the human health effects of prolonged exposure to PFAS across Oakey, Williamtown and Katherine.
“The Department of Health have also established an expert health panel to advise the Australian government on the potential health impacts associated with PFAS exposure and identify priority areas for further research. It is expected that the panel will provide its advice to the Minister for Health in late February.”
ALP Senator Alex Gallacher said the government has moved “incredibly slowly and incredibly cautiously” in the face of broad community concern.
“The simple reality is that it has been measured that PFOS or PFOA contamination has come off the bases and affected people's property. It has affected their material property, which has diminished in value.
“There have been calls for compensation by Senate committee reports, and the government has not done anything in the way of compensating those affected landholders.
“Sure, they have had provision for mental health and counselling services, and quite appropriately so because, if you paid $600,000 for your property and it's now worth next to nothing, you would be under a bit of stress and would probably need guidance to get your daily activities back to where they were.
“Who would have thought that a place in the Northern Territory that has never had a water problem in the whole of its history—the Katherine River is a mighty river—would have to go on water restrictions? Their ability to blend their artesian water with river water has been taken away from them by Defence. We've done it. Whether it was a Labor government with a Labor defence minister or a Liberal government with a Liberal defence minister, we've taken away that community's right to fresh water. Their ability to sustain their community has been diminished and they have had restrictions, and Defence is moving at about a snail's pace to fix that.
“These communities have been exceedingly patient. Their status is evidentiary based. It's not hard to work out that their properties are now not worth what they paid for them. They should be compensated. Their health issues should be addressed. Defence should be moving 100 times faster than what it is.”
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon also raised the issue of compensation.
“I see stressed residents, who are uncertain of their futures and have seen their property values collapse, being fobbed off by the government.
“And then there are the financial implications for the property values. How would any of us who owns a home feel if, all of a sudden, we found out that it was worthless because of contamination which we had nothing to do with? In fact, there is another body, in this case the federal government, that admits total responsibility. But that doesn't mean anything for these people. What they're left with is trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. They can't get compensation, they can't sell their property to anybody and they can't get a settlement from the government. This has been dragging on for years.
“The reports there nominate that just about everyone in the town of Katherine has been impacted.”
Liberal Senator James Paterson advised the cautious approach was best.
“One of the things we should all bear in mind when we deal with issues that are sensitive like this, where there is community concern and fear—and Senator Rhiannon certainly raised the fears that some people hold about this issue—is that we do so in a very measured and very considered way that is based on evidence and doesn't engage in speculation. When people are afraid, it does not help them at all to play on those fears, to play up those fears, and not actually to provide them with the scientific evidence we have available on this issue.
“We do know that these chemicals can persist in human beings, in animals and in the environment. But I'm advised that there is currently no consistent evidence that PFAS is harmful to human health.
“It's absolutely true, as Senator Burston said, that there are some studies which have found associations between exposure to these chemicals and health effects, but there are also other studies that have not found that same relationship.
“The issue of compensation and the potential impact on people's personal financial situations, of course, has been mentioned. That's something that the PFAS task force is considering, and it has been meeting with a number of financial institutions in its effort to clarify the issues.”
ALP Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, who has frequently raised the PFAS issue in parliament, said there had been regular calls for a single point of contact for PFAS on the ground in Katherine which have gone unanswered.
“Since PFAS was found in Katherine, residents have been dealing with numerous government agencies.
“Eight weeks on from that announcement (of health studies for Katherine), here I am, still standing in the Senate, still calling on the federal government and still talking about the blood tests that the people of Katherine should have received by now. These are blood tests that people of Katherine should have been lining up for to make sure that they were being tested. It's been eight weeks since that announcement and not one blood drop has been taken. So the people of Katherine are still waiting.”
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.