SPEECH: PFAS CONTAMINATION IN KATHERINE

November 29, 2017

I rise to speak about a very important issue that's affecting one of the most iconic towns in my electorate: Katherine. On the Stuart Highway, a three-hour drive south of Darwin, sits the town of Katherine.

As I've said here so many times, because I'm so proud to speak about the Northern Territory, I want to share that Katherine is home to more than 10,000 people, and, on the outskirts of the town, is RAAF Base Tindal. Tindal sits on top of the water aquifer that has been a water supply for many families and services in the area for decades. It's been over a year since the residents of Katherine were first alerted to the PFAS situation.

In November 2016, the Department of Defence reported that PFAS from the use of firefighting foam on the base in the 1970s and 1980s had contaminated the water. This was a shock to all Territorians, especially those living in Katherine, and the contamination in the aquifer caused precautionary measures to be taken. Residents who relied on bore water were told to stop drinking the water. By Christmas, 40 properties around Tindal and Katherine had been supplied with drinking water by the Department of Defence.

If we jump forward almost 12 months to October 2017, the ABC Four Corners program featuring Katherine aired across Australia, and the name of the program was 'Contamination'. I do want to read the introduction to the chamber because it really goes to the heart of this issue that still deeply concerns the residents of Katherine: Imagine being told you can't drink the water in your own home or swim in the local pool or finding out that your home may be effectively worthless because your water supply has been contaminated for years by toxic chemicals. Just imagine that.

The people of Katherine are like the rest of the Territory: they're tough, resilient and prepared to fight.

Understandably, the people of Katherine are anxious about the widespread nature of the PFAS contamination and the unknown consequences of ingesting or recreationally coming into contact with PFAS.

Since the contamination was detected, Katherine residents have been told not to drink the water and not to swim in the town pool. They face water restrictions, have been told that they have to wait for blood tests and have had new water tanks installed. All of these things they've taken in their stride, but they are looking for answers. They're attending the information sessions, but, often, the questions they have can't be answered because the right government agency isn't there to answer them.

Since PFAS was found in Katherine, residents have been dealing with numerous government agencies. Through the Senate estimates process and asking questions of various government departments, my colleagues and I were able to gain a bit more of an understanding of the progress of the Turnbull government's response to the affected areas.

A single point of contact for government agencies working on the PFAS issue in Katherine is what people need. It's incredibly frustrating. There are all these questions, and I have them asked so many times. I have also asked them here in the chamber of Minister for Defence Payne and been told that I should ask the Minister for Health or ask questions in estimates and been referred on to the PFAS taskforce at PM&C.

I ask the minister and the cabinet to take into consideration that the inability to find answers is really at the heart of my concerns as a senator for the Northern Territory but also the concerns of residents of the Northern Territory. This frustration is tenfold in Katherine, because it's incredibly frustrating to be caught in a web of bureaucracy about something incredibly vital to the health and wellbeing of the residents there.

So I ask again: why can't the residents of Katherine have a single point of contact on PFAS for federal government agencies?

Another thing that residents of Katherine have asked for is blood tests. We've heard ministers and senior public servants dismiss the value of blood tests. We've been told by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Murphy: … “there is no proven value in doing blood tests … And: The only concern would be creating unnecessary anxiety in the community”… Another quote is from Minister Payne: “But, when that data is available, the health experts will make the assessment on whether and how, if that is appropriate, blood testing is made available.” It's not good enough. It is not good enough to keep telling the people of Katherine to wait.

I know, and so do the people of Katherine, that the blood tests offered to people in other jurisdictions were offered at the same time as other environmental testing was being undertaken. For anyone who wants to argue that point, I refer you to the estimates Hansards. If blood tests will give the people of Katherine some peace of mind and reduce anxiety and confusion, why does the government insist on denying them this process? Why? Why are they denying the people of Katherine the process of blood testing?

If the refusal for blood tests wasn't bad enough, at the beginning of November the Turnbull government delivered another blow to the residents dealing with PFAS. After dragging its feet on the establishment of an expert health panel to provide advice on potential health impacts associated with PFAS, the government gave residents just 19 days to make a submission during the consultation process.

Next week, I will be welcoming the Mayor of Katherine Town Council, Fay Miller, to Canberra, and she'll be joined by the council CEO and residents of Katherine. They are coming to Canberra. Katherine residents have had enough. The Katherine Town Council has had enough. They want to be heard. They want to be met with. They want these questions around blood testing and other incredibly serious matters dealt with. They want to meet with government ministers to get moving on a PFAS solution.

Earlier this year, Northern Territory member for Katherine, Sandra Nelson, came to Canberra to meet with government ministers about PFAS. The member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon, and I, together with Mayor Miller and local member Sandra Nelson, just want what is fair for the residents of Katherine.

If a blood test and a single point of contact for the government agencies working on the PFAS issue will give the residents of Katherine some peace of mind then the least the government can do is give it to them before Christmas.

 

Click here to watch my speech.