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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 8606

Defence: Water Supplies

Senator McALLISTER (New South Wales) (14:17): My question is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Payne. In response to questions regarding the poisonous chemical contamination emanating from RAAF Base Williamtown at Senate estimates on 21 October, Defence Assistant Secretary Alison Clifton said:

… we believe that that contamination is still exiting the base.

Yet on 12 November, the minister told the Senate:

… this is actually not a Defence issue.

Given that Defence has admitted its culpability in the continuing chemical leak at Williamtown, does the minister now accept that Defence is responsible for this contamination?

Senator PAYNE (New South WalesMinister for Defence) (14:18): Thank you very much. I do not have with me the benefit of the Hansard that would provide Senator McAllister with the full quote, but my memory is perhaps better than hers, which is to say that I went on to say at the time that the issue of PFOS and PFOA contamination—that it is the fire suppressant used historically in a number of places—is an issue for government as a whole, because of its impact in a number of areas. That includes airports and firefighting agencies such as rural and civil fire services. What I did not say, and will not be misconstrued as saying, is that the matters concerning Williamtown and its surrounding areas are not matters related to the Defence facility. Of course, self-evidently, they are.

Senator McALLISTER (New South Wales) (14:19): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. When asked at Senate estimates if Defence was working to remove the chemicals and stop the environmental contamination, Ms Clifton responded:

It would not be possible for us to remove those without fundamentally disrupting the base.

Does the minister agree that it is more important not to disrupt the Defence base than to protect local communities by stopping the contamination leaking into the environment?

Senator PAYNE (New South WalesMinister for Defence) (14:19): I think it is important to also understand the nature of the residual contaminant that is left by PFOS and PFOA. What studies do show is that it is a contaminant that does not break down. Extensive studies have been commenced and are continuing over, I think, now decades in the United States on this particular environmental contaminant. What we would have to do in terms of the operation of the RAAF Base Williamtown and its surrounding areas has been considered by the department, and Ms Clifton acknowledged those considerations at the Senate estimates.

That is an ongoing process, because this contaminant continues, obviously, to be present in the environment. We are working with the New South Wales state government, and the New South Wales state government has, as I think I noted on the previous occasion, taken a number of decisions in this regard— (Time expired)

Senator McALLISTER (New South Wales) (14:20): Mr President, I ask a final supplementary question. The Liberal member for Paterson, Mr Bob Baldwin, is calling for Defence to take action in today's Newcastle Herald saying:

If you've got a hole in a boat and it's leaking water, you don't bail the water. You stop the leak.

Do you agree with Mr Baldwin that Defence should comply with its own policy prohibiting the release of these chemicals into the natural environment under any circumstances and immediately stop the chemical contamination leaking from Williamtown?

Senator PAYNE (New South WalesMinister for Defence) (14:21): I wish it were as simple as plugging a hole in a boat, actually. Whilst that might be a convenient metaphor for others to use, it is not one I would use. What we are examining in the Williamtown area and at the base itself are the options that are available to us in terms of management of the contaminant, in terms of the run-off of water from the base itself and of course continuing—

Senator Kim Carr: What about stopping it at source?

Senator PAYNE: Senator Carr, you don't understand actually, and that is a technical problem. I have indicated to the shadow minister, Senator Conroy, as I am sure he will acknowledge, that the government will—and I think probably already has—provide a briefing to those responsible on the other side, which will enable them to have a far more sophisticated understanding of the problem than the simplistic one being presented now. It is not that simple, Mr President, and we are making every endeavour to support the community. (Time expired)