THE Department of Defence has told a Senate inquiry that it is “too early” to talk about compensation for people affected by the Williamtown RAAF Base contamination scandal.
Appearing at the inquiry’s first hearing in Canberra on Thursday, Defence deputy secretary Steve Grzeskowiak said consideration of compensation was “complex” and “needs to be taken as the full impact [of the contamination] emerges over time”.
Pressed by Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon on whether compensation was being discussed internally, Defence special counsel Michael Lysewycz said his office was “having discussions”, but said it was “too early” to talk about the issue in detail.
It’s a step back from September 30, when the commander of the Williamtown RAAF Base, Air Commodore Steve Roberton, told a public meting in Tomago that “Defence polluted here, Defence pays”.
“There’s a lot of good intent at the moment but actually to trigger compensation especially for those who really need it, we need to get the federal and the state level connected,” he said at the time.
“It’s actually getting the mechanism for the money to get it into the right groups.”
But at the hearing on Thursday, Mr Grzeskowiak backed away from those comments, saying he was not aware of them, and that it would “not be Defence’s position”.
The hearing went for just under three hours, and also covered the issue of when Defence knew about the contamination, and its response to the scandal so far.
Mr Grzeskowiak acknowledged “the legacy environmental contamination issue” at Williamtown and said Defence was “committed to undertaking ecological and human health risk assessments to understand current exposure scenarios and associated risks”.
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As well as Defence officials, the inquiry heard testimony from NSW Chief Scientist Mary O’Kane, and Peter Shannon and Rory Ross, two solicitors from law firm Shine Lawyers.
Shine represents a group of residents from Oakey in Queensland, a town close to an army aviation base that has also seen PFOS and PFOA contamination spread beyond the base into private water bores.
Mr Shannon said Defence would need to be “pushed” by the parliament to provide serious financial compensation.
“Defence is charged with protecting the public purse strings so it is not going to voluntarily cough up compensation, it has to be pushed,” he said.
“The only entity with the power to do that is Parliament.”
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon asked whether the Commonwealth had already admitted liability for the contamination by paying financial compensation to businesses like fishing trawlers, but Mr Shannon said that was “not necessarily” the case.
“That can be done, and usually is, without an admission of liability,” he said.
Following the hearing, Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon said she “welcomed Defence’s commitment to resolving this complex issue”, but called on the government to “clarify” the compensation situation.
“What compensation is going to be provided to residents and local businesses who have suffered losses?” she said.
“Because they still haven’t committed to that.”
The hearing went for just under three hours, and covered the issue of when Defence knew about the contamination, the prospect of compensation, and Defence’s response so far.
The Newcastle Herald reported in September that Defence first knew about possible environmental impacts from firefighting foam containing PFOS in 2003, and Mr Grzeskowiak said Defence had tried to limit the release of the foam into the environment from then.
Despite that, the foam wasn’t phased out at the base until 2012, and is still used in trace amounts when fighting fires in “critical incidents”.
Mr Grzeskowiak did not respond directly to questions from the inquiry chair Alex Gallacher about what Defence did to stop PFOS leaking into groundwater and onto neighbouring land once it was aware the contaminant was on the base in December 2011.