A parliamentary inquiry has called on the Morrison government to compensate people whose property values have been devastated by firefighting foam contamination, to ban the toxins and to appoint a co-ordinator-general to take over the handling of the unfolding environmental crisis.
In a shock departure from the Coalition’s policies on the contamination, Liberal MP Andrew Laming delivered the landmark findings in Parliament on Monday.
No family should be trapped on contaminated land ... simply because a polluter is unable to meet their part of the bargain to make that sale possible.Liberal MP Andrew Laming
Residents living in Williamtown’s red zone cautiously welcomed the findings, but said immediate action was needed.
“We said please don’t let the sun set on another toxic Christmas,” resident Rhianna Gorfine said. “This can’t be put on the back burner. The recommendation needs to be enacted now.”
While the recommendations had the bipartisan support of all MPs sitting on the inquiry, it remains unclear whether they would be supported by the Morrison government.
In an emotional speech, Mr Laming described the stories of people whose lives had been blighted by the contamination as “graphic” and “horrifying”.
“No family should be trapped on contaminated land ... simply because a polluter is unable to meet their part of the bargain to make that sale possible,” Mr Laming said. “These communities are hurt, they're angered.
“The delays and inadequacies in finding justice have done enormous damage to those living there and their families.”
Williamtown resident Jenny Robinson, who has recovered from breast cancer, was dubious the government would follow through on the latest recommendations.
"Until it is turned into actions it is only words on a page," she said.
President of the Coalition against PFAS Lindsay Clout welcomed the recommended appointment of a PFAS "Tsar" to take charge of what is expected to be one of the largest chemical clean-ups in the nation's history.
“It’s taken a long time but we have turned this into a national debate, we have cracked the shell,” he said.
“We have an election coming up. History has taught me that elections are governments’ Achilles’ heel. We won’t miss kicking them where they feel it.”
Nick Marshall from Salt Ash Community First said the findings were what the community had been waiting for.
“It would be nice if the government followed through on its own recommendations and compensated people for the grief and loss it caused,” he said. “The government caused this mess and now it needs to fix it. The land needs to be made fit for purpose.”
The developments follow a three-year campaign by the Newcastle Herald for justice on behalf of affected communities.
PFAS chemicals were historically used in fire retardants, do not break down in the environment and have contaminated land around military bases, fire stations and industrial sites across Australia. The chemicals were a key ingredient in food packaging and fabric protector Scotchguard, until they were phased out by manufacturer 3M in the early 2000s. Overseas studies have linked exposure to a slew of health effects including immune suppression, developmental effects and cancer.
The Herald’s investigations uncovered 50 cancer cases on a single road running alongside the Williamtown RAAF base, and a further 21 cancer cases in a US high school, where both populations were heavily exposed to PFAS chemicals.
The Morrison government has denied a link between PFAS exposure and health effects, as it fends off multiple class actions from residents living near military bases. It has also refused to compensate residents who have found their property values decimated and banks knocking back loan applications in affected postcodes.
The inquiry – conducted by eight Labor, three Liberal and one Greens MP – was formed to examine the Morrison government's response to contamination around Defence land. Public hearings heard of the financial and psychological devastation for residents, as they gave heartbreaking accounts of the last three years trapped on poisoned properties.
The inquiry's recommendations stopped short of calling for compensation over health effects from PFAS exposure, but called on authorities to “acknowledge the potential links to certain medical conditions”.
It recommended Australia join the 171 other countries that have banned the most toxic chemical in the PFAS family, known as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). It further argued that all firefighting foams containing PFAS chemicals should be banned. It also recommended the Morrison government:
- Provide compensation, including “the possibility of buybacks”, to people that can prove quantifiable financial losses, giving priority to the “most seriously affected”.
- Install a co-ordinator-general to oversee the national response to the issue, working with multiple tiers of government
- Upscale investment in the remediation of contamination plumes, improve the national voluntary blood testing program and offer free financial counselling to affected families and
- Initiate an independent review of environmental regulation of Commonwealth land.
The parliamentary committee argued the compensation scheme should be flexible and should not prevent a person from making a future claim if human health effects are proved. The findings come just days after a confidential mediation was held in the Federal Court as part of class actions launched by affected communities at Williamtown and Oakey, in Queensland.
The inquiry's deputy chair, Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy, said its members from all sides of the political divide had heard the call from families wanting to be given the choice to leave their properties.
“I would say to those families to hang in there, this about leadership at the highest of levels and the push is on the Morrison government to act,” she said. “You would have to be pretty heartless to not be touched by the evidence.” A previous senate inquiry in 2016 came to similar conclusions, but those most significant – including calls for compensation – were ignored by the government.