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Wednesday, 18 October 2017
Page: 7858


Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory) (13:23): I rise to talk about the town of Katherine in the Northern Territory. It's a community three hours south of Darwin when you travel by car. It captures the great Katherine region with the rivers on both sides—the Roper, the Katherine itself and the Vic River. It is beautiful country.

Unfortunately, the town is seriously impacted by chemical contamination of its water supply. RAAF Base Tindal is right next door to Katherine, and the Tindal air base is well utilised in terms of the domestic flights in and out of Katherine; it's not just for RAAF purposes. The base was opened in 1989 and has certainly been an economic boon to the town. The many families from RAAF Tindal, not just now but previously, have been very much involved with the growth of the region, and no doubt some of them have made it home for much longer than they ever envisaged. It's also a place with very strong agricultural industries, but Defence is a major and certainly very welcome presence in the region.

The problem is that, unknown to people of Katherine and certainly to RAAF Base Tindal, the water was being slowly polluted. The reason? A firefighting foam used on Defence bases such as Tindal by aviation fire crews. This foam is contained in a group of chemicals, the per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short. It is an acronym sadly now very familiar to just about every family in Katherine.

Sampling by Defence has found concentrated levels of PFAS in the Tindal aquifer, which has required further investigation, and a report will be completed in the new year, around April. That is way too long for many residents, and I will continue to ask questions about that time frame.

There is global concern about the chemicals, because they do not degrade in the natural environment. These chemicals are known as 'emerging contaminants', and their specific impact on the environment and humans is still being investigated. The primary exposure pathway for humans is from drinking the water. Other exposure routes can include eating foodstuffs produced from impacted land and water systems, like fish, poultry, meat and vegies. Katherine's bores, drinking supply and local pool are contaminated with traces of PFAS. Compulsory water conservation measures are imposed already in an effort to minimise the amount of PFAS in the water supply. That took place, with the Northern Territory government calling on Katherine residents to reduce and be conservative about their use of water. When you think about a place like Katherine in the wet season, when we have tremendous amounts of rain coming through, to now have water restrictions, the mind boggles. When I was in Katherine last week and listened to residents and families express concern and ask many questions, that was a constant issue that was raised. People just couldn't believe that they have to have water restrictions in an area that is so full of water.

Certainly, the Katherine community is doing a great job keeping water use down and ensuring they do not use bore water in the town water supply. But more than 50 Katherine households—this is in the rural area—have been told not to drink their water supply due to PFAS contamination originating from RAAF Base Tindal. The Defence department trucks in water each week to these 50 properties, because they must have the water bottles. I think it is important for the Senate to understand the seriousness of what is taking place in the north.

With temperatures starting to reach 40 degrees, the local pool has also closed because of PFAS contamination. Have a think about that. Your local pool has closed. We're always conscious of the rivers anyway because of the crocodiles in the area. There is something going on in Katherine that I urge this Senate to be asking more questions about. It's certainly a very serious situation for any town to be in. It's important that this government be completely on top of this situation and that it gives absolute reassurance to the residents of the Katherine region about what is going on, especially given that there have been similar experiences in other parts of the country about this very issue—PFAS—with contaminations in the Queensland town of Oakey and the New South Wales town of Williamtown. This is not new. However, the mistakes that should have been learned from Queensland and from New South Wales are perhaps mistakes that may have just been repeated in the Northern Territory.

Again, I will be asking many questions to understand why our area was not informed much sooner. It seems that very few lessons have been learned about how to engage with the community dealing with the contaminated water supply. There are certainly big questions this government still has to answer from the Katherine community about the contamination. When did Defence first become aware of PFAS in Katherine's water? Was there a delay? Who is responsible?

The residents of Katherine have continually received mixed messages from this government. One week they're telling residents the water is safe to drink, and the next they're bringing in a water treatment plant to reduce the amount of PFAS in the town water supply. Where did this water treatment plant come from? It came from the United States. It took many weeks, if not months, to get here. While long-term solutions may certainly be worked on with this water treatment plant in place, it's there to reduce the amount of PFAS in the Katherine town water supply and it's expected to treat, once it's up and running—it's not working yet; they're still to put this in, and the expectation is that it should be November. So this water treatment plant that's come all the way from the United States and is being put together by the Katherine River is expected to treat one million litres of groundwater per day—yes, a lot, hey—to try to reduce the PFAS.

There is no nationally consistent approach to the management of PFAS contamination around the country, leaving the Katherine community in limbo until Defence completes its epidemiological study early next year. That is totally unacceptable. Katherine residents are rightly asking for access to the same services provided to residents in Williamtown and in Oakey. But we can't get it. We're not receiving it. If the situation in Katherine is at the point where a water treatment plant had to be rushed in from the United States and a local swimming pool closed, it is time for the federal government to implement blood tests so the residents of Katherine can check just how far the PFAS contamination has gone within their own health system.

This government should be adopting Labor's PFAS response in its entirety, including clear and coordinated communication with the community, a nationally consistent approach to the management of PFAS contamination around the country and blood tests for communities affected by PFAS contamination around Defence sites. Even the families at RAAF Base Tindal are very concerned. They need to be reassured that their families are okay. The residents of Katherine and Tindal deserve more from this very haphazard and certainly unresponsive government.