Coalition led inquiry calls to pay out victims of toxic contamination
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Coalition led inquiry calls to pay out victims of toxic contamination

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 coordinator-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.

While the recommendations had the bipartisan support of all MPs sitting on the inquiry, it remains unclear whether they will be supported by the Morrison government.

In an emotional speech, Mr Laming described the stories of people whose lives have been blighted by the contamination as "graphic" and "horrifying".

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"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 so they can be airlifted from the red zone," Mr Laming said.

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"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."

The developments follow a three-year campaign by The Sydney Morning Herald and 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 popular fabric protector Scotchgard, 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.

Herald investigations uncovered 50 cancer cases on a single road running alongside the Williamtown RAAF base in NSW, 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 for 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 residents".
  • Install a coordinator-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 families.
  • Initiate an independent review of environmental regulation of Commonwealth land.

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, in NSW, 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 on these recommendations," 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 the most significant – including calls for compensation – were ignored by the government.

Williamtown resident Jenny Robinson, who has recovered from breast cancer, was dubious that the government would follow through on the latest round of 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 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.

"History has taught me that elections are governments’ Achilles heel," he said. "We won’t miss kicking them where they feel it."

Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi, who sat on the inquiry, called on the Morrison government to "urgently" adopt the report's recommendations.

Carrie Fellner is an investigative reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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