Standing up for Canberra

What is the Turnbull Government's solution for PFAS?

The new standards introduced by these bills are good for the health of Australians and the environment, and they provide certainty for industry. 

As someone who before coming to this place as the member for Canberra worked on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in the department of climate change and worked on the stakeholder engagement strategy with industry, I know that certainty for industry is absolutely fundamental for them to get on board for dramatic change—quite often for the climate change initiatives that the Labor government was proposing at the time. It is vitally important that industry is clear on the way forward, has certainty on the way forward, is clear on what a government is trying to achieve and, most importantly, is clear on its investment strategy for the future. There is nothing that industry hates more than uncertainty. Unfortunately, that's what this government has given industry: uncertainty in the climate change area, uncertainty in terms of a national energy policy and uncertainty in terms of renewables.

The new standards outlined in this bill provide for a reduction of 1.9 million tonnes of CO2 emissions over the next 20 years. This could avoid $1.7 billion in health costs, which is significant, as well as about 3,000 premature deaths. They are significant outcomes. Similar standards are already in place in 26 of the 35 OECD countries, including the United States, Japan and China. By introducing these standards, Australia will finally have a regulatory framework in place that will prevent our country—with some of the world's most unique flora and fauna, and the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven wonders of the natural world—from being the dumping ground for high-polluting products manufactured overseas.

Environment ministers from federal, state and territory governments agreed to the adoption of these new standards in December 2015, which was the first key initiative under the National Clean Air Agreement. It's taken almost two years for this legislation to be introduced. In the meantime, the ACT government here in the nation's capital, here in the wonderful but freezing-cold national capital, has been doing all it can to lower emissions and help improve what can only be considered a bleak outlook on climate change presented by this Turnbull government.

One of the best things about Canberra—Australia's national capital—is its reputation as the bush capital. That's one of the features that we love about it. The bushland surrounds and intertwines this city, which is why our city is known for clean air, open spaces and convenience. Systems of parks, wetlands and waterways provide a valuable habitat that improves our ecosystems. The design of Walter Burley Griffin is definitely one of the reasons for the city being what it is today—a bush capital with a natural landscape that has, as part of the planning process, green spaces.

Walter Burley Griffin was very much influenced by the notion of a democratic city. He wanted democracy to be encouraged, with the participation of citizens—active citizenry—to be realised through the design of cities. That is why his design has so much interaction with the natural landscape, that is why the architectural designs have so much interaction with and so much sympathy for the natural environment, and that is why there is so much green space, so people have a sense of wellbeing not only from looking onto green space but also from walking in that green space, bike riding in that green space, running in that green space, playing in that green space. It's vitally important to the notion of the wellbeing and health of a community, and it's vitally important to the notion of access and activity citizenry for everyone. So we've got this fabulous city, this fabulous national capital, that realises Griffin's design ideas. At the time, unfortunately, those ideas were attacked by politicians and by the architecture profession here in Australia, as well as by the media.

In much the same way, climate change has been attacked by those who don't believe in the science behind it. But Canberrans believe it and are leading the way for the rest of Australia. With emissions in the ACT already reduced by 20 per cent since 2012, which is significant, we saw an announcement late last year that 100 per cent of the territory's electricity needs will be met by renewable energy by 2020. Canberra is investing in sustainable transport and buildings and is shifting away from a reliance on motor vehicles to more sustainable options. That's a big challenge, because, for all the merits of Burley Griffin's design, he actually had as part of that design a light rail or tram network. Unfortunately, there were various iterations of Canberra's town planning, and in the seventies there was a flurry of activity, and a lot of what's happened, particularly with the satellite city concept, has meant that large parts of Canberra are linked. We have satellite cities that are linked by roads. Despite Walter Burley Griffin's original concept of a democratic city with lots of green space and people actively engaged in the community, thanks to the town planners of the seventies and the satellite city concept, Canberra is connected by a large road network, so we are very heavily reliant on cars.

That is why the ACT government should be commended for the efforts it's made in trying to reduce Canberrans' dependence on cars. It's looking at electric cars, at walking tracks, at cycling and at sustainable public transport systems. They've all been on the agenda to help Canberra into the future, which shows a real commitment to achieving that 2020 emissions target.

This is streets ahead of some states and territories that haven't even set a renewable energy target. It's an interesting point: can you set a target for net zero emissions by 2050 without having a renewable energy target in place? While it's encouraging to see this Turnbull government implementing policies that are expected to reduce carbon emissions, it's happening at a glacial pace.

This is similar to the Turnbull government's response to managing PFAS contamination. Legacy firefighting foams containing perfluorinated chemicals were used extensively in Australia and worldwide from the 1970s due to their effectiveness in extinguishing liquid fuel fires. After concerns emerged about potential environmental and human health impacts of the chemicals, Defence began phasing out its use of legacy firefighting foams containing PFOS and PFOA chemicals as active ingredients, and it started doing that in 2004.

Defence has identified 18 category 1 properties which have had large quantities or routine and frequent historical use of legacy firefighting foams and prioritised these sites for investigation to determine if any contaminants have migrated off-site and, if so, the extent of their migration. Investigations into the extent of PFAS contamination, its effects on the environment and its effects on human health have been ongoing for some time.

In fact, one of the first areas subject to investigation was around the Army Aviation Centre in Oakey in 2012. Defence completed an environmental site assessment, a human health risk assessment and a preliminary ecological risk assessment for Oakey in 2016, with further investigations still underway. Five years later and the community in Oakey are still facing the same anxiety and uncertainty they have had from the start of the investigation in 2012. There's a class action underway at the moment. Erin Brockovich has been there a number of times to speak to Oakey residents. Five years later, there's still this anxiety and uncertainty facing the Oakey community in terms of the PFAS contamination issue.

The waiting, the anxiety and the uncertainty are also felt by the community in and around RAAF Base Williamtown. Environmental investigations into the nature and extent of PFAS contamination on and around RAAF Base Williamtown began in 2015. The environmental site assessment, human health risk assessment and preliminary ecological risk assessment were also completed in 2016. Following the completion of these assessments, Defence identified data gaps in some portions of the investigation area, so further work is underway to update and refine the 2016 assessment reports. Some of this work is similar to that happening in Oakey. Analysis is happening on the uptake of PFAS in fruit and vegetables and the uptake of PFAS in chicken eggs, and there is seafood sampling and analysis, additional surface water and groundwater data collection and additional sediment data collection and analysis.

This year, updated tolerable daily intake levels were identified by Food Standards Australia New Zealand—and this has been the challenge with this issue, Deputy Speaker. I'm not sure whether you're aware of it, but the challenge has been in the fact that there has been no internationally agreed standard on it. The US has a particular standard. The various states in the US have different standards. Europeans have different standards. Australia now has a different standard. So everyone is really grappling with this issue internationally in terms of working out: what is an acceptable level of reading in your blood with these PFAS contaminants? We are at the beginning of this journey, and it's a real challenge for everyone.

As I said, these new daily tolerable intake levels were identified by FSANZ just this year, and Defence released an additional human health risk assessment report setting out additional precautionary recommendations for Williamtown and Oakey residents to minimise exposure to PFAS chemicals. Williamtown and Oakey residents are facing the uncertainty of what is actually happening to their health, their environment and their property values, and other communities living near those 18 Defence sites are taking note of what is happening in Oakey and Williamtown.

The two locations are considered benchmarks. Oakey's been dealing with this issue for five years, still with no resolution from the government. Five years on; still no clear way forward from the Turnbull government on what should be actually happening. For two years Williamtown residents have been coping with the uncertainty, anxiety, stress and human health concerns. These have not been addressed appropriately by this government. There's still uncertainty around the issue. We have those two sites, Oakey and Williamtown, still with large question marks over them because of inaction from this government. Labor has continually called on the government to actually listen to residents and respond appropriately.

We know that the community living near RAAF Base Tindal in Katherine is also concerned about the impact of PFAS chemicals on its natural water supply. The concern for their community's health and environment has led to a water treatment plant being quickly sourced, built and shipped from the United States to Katherine to help filter the community's water supply. In the meantime, water restrictions are in place to help reduce the community's potential exposure to PFAS chemicals. If the benchmarks of Williamtown and Oakey are anything to go by—Oakey five years, still no certainty; Williamtown two years, still no certainty—then the Katherine community will have to wait before any certainty can be provided by this government.

The leaching of PFAS chemicals off Defence bases into the national environment is a major concern. I have visited almost all of the 18 Defence sites that have been identified as affected by PFAS contamination to find out more. I have received briefings from Defence staff and officers at Navy, Army and Air Force bases right around the country on what is happening to identify potential sources of contaminants, to establish the extent of any contamination, and the management processes in place to prevent any further leaching of PFAS chemicals into the surrounding environment. I want to take this opportunity to thank all of those Defence staff and Defence officers who provided their professional advice and opinion and their hospitality in these many briefings and base tours. They've shown me where the PFAS chemicals were used, they've shown me where they were stored, and they've shown me the management arrangements that are currently in place to risk manage it.

Defence is working tirelessly in a cloud of uncertainty that's been created by this government's failure to coordinate a national response to what is an emerging national issue. Labor has led from the front on the management of PFAS. This government largely adopted Labor's policy that we took to the last election in response to PFAS contamination, but it is failing in its execution. It was Labor that called for a nationally consistent approach to PFAS management. It was Labor that called for the Turnbull government to expand its program of voluntary blood testing for only Williamtown and Oakey residents to all 18 Defence sites. It was Labor that called for the creation of an intergovernmental taskforce to coordinate the government's response to contamination. The government finally created a taskforce earlier this year, but the taskforce has yet to make a public appearance, comment or announcement on the government's policy solution. We've heard there's a solution for Williamtown out there. What is that solution? I'm calling on the Turnbull government to let us know what the government's solution is— (Time expired)