Cracks emerge over health impacts of firefighting chemicals

Defence Minister Marise Payne

Defence Minister Marise Payne

DEFENCE Minister Marise Payne has refused to endorse controversial remarks made by her deputy about the health impacts of the chemicals at the centre of the Williamtown RAAF Base contamination crisis. 

During a visit to Williamtown on Tuesday, Ms Payne was asked whether she agreed with Assistant Defence Minister Michael McCormack that there was “no link whatsoever” between exposure to the chemicals perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and adverse human health effects. 

She would not say whether she supported Mr McCormack’s view. 

“I don’t think it is a matter of if I agree or disagree with Mr McCormack,” Ms Payne said. “Defence is not a health authority.”  

“I think the discussion around the science, the medical evidence and the health impacts is a very complicated one. There are differing views, ones we are still processing.

“What I’m relying on is the work we are doing with enHealth [the Environmental Health Standing Committee] to determine health reference levels … they’re taking into account the US and European experience.” 

She said the issue of legal liability for losses suffered by residents could not be addressed until formal testing results had been received but she accepted that “the use of AFFF on the base has led to the PFOS and PFOA contamination issues.” 

There were tears as Ms Payne sat down with 12 residents during an emotional two-hour meeting on the base, also attended by Mr McCormack and Paterson candidate Karen Howard. 

Ms Payne described it as “very valuable” to hear directly from residents about how they had been impacted by the spread of the toxic chemicals. 

“I was very concerned we do as much as we possibly can to support the community. It is a significant problem, I absolutely acknowledge that,” she said. 

But she would not be drawn over why it had taken 10 months for the visit to happen. 

“I suspect it wouldn’t matter what I said in response to that question.” 

Ms Payne agreed, if re-elected, to attend a public meeting with representatives of other agencies such as the NSW EPA and Department of Primary Industries once the results of scientific testing had been released. 

She would not give specifics of how the $55 million the Coalition has pledged to resolving the problem would be spent. However she did confirm $5 million from the pool of funding would go towards an epidemiological study, separate to the human health risk assessment and ecological study currently being carried out. 

President of the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group, Cain Gorfine, said they were appreciative of the length of time they were given with the Minister and that she appeared prepared to listen to their concerns. 

“There were tears, there were some very stern one-way conversations from the floor, people were upset,” Mr Gorfine said. 

“How she reacted to that? There wasn’t much emotion, it was okay, well I understand and I hear what you’re saying.” 

However he said his group was disappointed at the level of “buck passing” at the meeting, particularly in relation to the “diminishing” property values in the area. 

“The minister made it clear that that really falls on the shoulders of the banks...that was a bit disappointing,” he said. 

Ms Howard would not weigh in to the debate over the health impacts of the chemicals, saying she reserve comment until after “the completion of the investigations”. 

However said she was pleased at the “robust” conversation that was had with the Minister, who had promised to come back to the community with more answers on a number of issues. 

“I’m very certain every person in the room was emotionally moved by what they heard,” she said.