I rise to lend my support for the Industrial Chemicals Environmental Management (Register) Bill 2020 and related bills.
These bills would establish a national framework to manage the handling, use and disposal of industrial chemicals, which have the potential to cause serious health and environmental harms if mismanaged.
Currently, there is no mechanism to implement health and safety recommendations made by the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme to manage such risks, and that’s a huge risk in itself.
This bill will ensure that industrial chemicals are appropriately and uniformly classified based on risk and that this classification is based in evidence and the expert advice of an advisory committee on environmental management of industrial chemicals.
Importantly, this bill also creates a mechanism for states and territories to jointly implement recommendations relating to the appropriate management of industrial chemicals to ensure national consistency.
This bill has relevance to my electorate of Indi where poor regulation and management of PFAS, also known as a ‘forever chemical’, has directly impacted residents in East Wodonga.
PFAS is a man-made persistent organic substance, meaning it does not break down easily and, therefore, accumulates over time and remains in our environment and in us.
There are thousands of such chemicals. Wodonga is one of a number of regional cities across Australia currently tackling issues related to PFAS contamination in the environment.
The Bandiana Military Area near Wodonga, like many military bases across Australia, previously used a firefighting foam that contained the chemical PFAS. Although it’s no longer used and has not been used at Bandiana for around 10 years, PFAS can still be detected in the surface water and groundwater at the base and has leaked from the military base into the surrounding environment.
A number of Wodonga residents are part of an Australia-wide class action that is seeking damages to compensate for impacted properties, land values and livelihoods. Similar claims in Katherine in the Northern Territory have resulted in a significant settlement for residents, amounting to $212.5 million.
The Department of Defence conducted a series of investigations into PFAS exposure at Bandiana and in the community, concluding ‘low and acceptable’ levels of exposure.
However, ‘potentially unacceptable risks’ were identified from activities that are not currently occurring in the area surrounding Bandiana, but could in the future, such as the use of groundwater for stock watering or growing local vegetables and eggs, as many people across my electorate already do.
My constituents and all Australians should be able to do these things with confidence, without wondering whether they’re putting their lives and the lives of their families in danger.
Although the links between forever chemicals and serious health risks are not officially recognised by the government, the Department of Defence recognised in its investigation that ‘important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out based on current evidence’, and exposure to these chemicals should, therefore, be minimised.
With these types of findings in official government reports, I can empathise with community concern about the extent of the health risks PFAS might pose.
Nicole Beach, whose family home borders Jack in the Box Creek where water samples have exceeded PFAS freshwater guidelines, is understandably concerned about any possible connection between Bandiana and extremely high rates of cancer and autoimmune disease in her family. And there are many more concerning stories like this. More research is needed, and PFAS is, of course, only one of numerous industrial chemicals that pose potential risks to human health.
North East Water continues to monitor PFAS levels in drinking water for Wodonga, Wangaratta, Yarrawonga and Wahgunyah, thankfully, having found no alarming levels to date. This bill will not solve overnight the problems and concerns that communities like Wodonga are experiencing, but it is a step towards ensuring that it doesn’t happen again.
Australian communities deserve to be protected from the hazards associated with the use of chemicals of an industrial nature. Australian communities should have confidence that the government is doing its best to protect them from the hazards associated with the use of industrial chemicals, and this bill takes us a step in the right direction.
Regulating industrial chemicals is currently the responsibility of states and territories. PFAS is regulated differently in Victoria, where my electorate of Indi is, than in Queensland or Western Australia.
Under this bill, states and territories would continue to hold regulatory responsibility but would be coordinated by national standards to ensure dangerous chemicals are managed consistently, proactively and more effectively across the country than has been the case in the past.
It’s also important to note that just this month the New South Wales Liberal government banned the use of PFAS firefighting foam except in catastrophic circumstances. Firefighting foam is the main source of PFAS contamination in New South Wales, so the phase-out will contribute greatly to the reduction of this toxic contaminant in the New South Wales environment.
It’s a commendable reform by the New South Wales government and a sign that it’s possible to remove these toxins from products that we need for daily life. I support this bill and hope it will improve the successful management of industrial chemicals to protect the health of Australians and to protect our precious environment.