4BC Mornings

Interview

DCI038/2017

21 April 2017

Subject: Firefighting foam release

Mark Levy: I thought we'd have a chat to the Federal Minister Darren Chester and I'm pleased to say he's on the line. Minister, good morning.

Darren Chester: Yes. Good morning, Mark.

Mark Levy: Let's start off with Minister Miles and also the Palaszczuk Government, they're blaming you and Qantas for not doing more to warn the public about the spill. Is it your fault?

Darren Chester: Well, let's get right back to the beginning, Mark. It is very disappointing that there has been a spill obviously and Qantas needs to take responsibility for its action in that regard and I have had conversations there as you'd expect. But, I understand a valve malfunctioned and we need to do a proper investigation about what actually occurred and were the mitigation measures enough to try and keep the spill contained.

But in terms of when the fire fighting foam actually reached the Brisbane River or reached the environs outside the base, it really becomes a responsibility for the State Government. I have got no idea why Minster Miles thinks writing me a letter on Wednesday a week after the event and demanding action from me is appropriate. I think he is just simply trying to cover up the fact that he didn't have enough to say to the Queensland public immediately afterwards and that's disappointing.

But being a Minister, you have to own up to your responsibilities and my responsibilities exist on the federally-leased airport and deal with Qantas and to try and ensure that such an event doesn't occur again. But in terms of what occurs with the spill in relation to the Brisbane River, that really is the responsibility of Minister Miles, I've got no idea why he is seeking to blame me for this.

Mark Levy: I will come to Minister Miles more in a moment. But just let me paint this picture and forgive me if I'm wrong. There's a major spill at Brisbane Airport, it leaks into Brisbane River, it affects Moreton Bay and the surrounding waterways of Brisbane Airport. You are obviously notified as the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport because it has come from the Qantas hangar. I am assuming you would then communicate with the Queensland Government to say hey we have got a situation. That being either the Premier or the Environment Minister Dr Steven Miles. You would then obviously speak to Qantas as well. Is any of that right? Did you communicate with these people? Because I'm trying to understand why the public had to wait three or four days to be told that this substance actually filtered through into the waterways.

Darren Chester: Well the timeline as you described it is accurate in the sense that once my Department became aware of the PFAS-based firefighting foam going beyond the airport, they had the relevant conversations with the state authority, so the state agencies. As I understand it, Mark, the state agencies, the bureaucrats at Queensland level and the federal level have been working closely on this from the first 12 hours after the event. So, to me it is frustrating in the sense that the Minister seems to be trying to score a political point at a federal level whereas our agencies are working closely to try and resolve the situation, give some assurance to the Queensland public in relation to what measures are taken to clean up any contaminants and prevent it occurring again. I think looking backwards into what happened is only relevant if you can make sure it doesn't happen again in the future. Now I'm not interested in trying to apportion blame in terms of who did what or when other than to say that Qantas obviously will need to be held responsible for any fault in terms of the breakdown of the valve which led to this spill. But in terms of my responsibilities as the Federal Minister I need to make sure it doesn't happen again and that's what I'm trying to achieve.

Mark Levy: Well you are right, it is your responsibility because it did happen on an airport and I am not going to get to the State Government now, we will get to them in just a moment. But why wasn't there a press conference held by you to start off with to say; yes, there's been a problem, yes it is affecting the environment? I mean, couldn't it have been a joint press conference with the Queensland Government?

Darren Chester: Well that is a fair question, Mark. I think looking forward that is an option that we could have considered but at the time I understood—and I believe that still to be the case—that my federal agencies, the people involved in directly dealing with the airports on a day-to-day basis had been in conversations with their state counterparts and I wasn't aware that there hadn't been information passed on to the Queensland public. So, in retrospect it would have been better for me to have a joint press conference with Minister Miles, that's something we can certainly consider into the future if anything like this happened again—which I hope it wouldn't. But I understood that the federal bureaucrats and state agencies were working closely and that the appropriate decisions were being made by the environmental people in Queensland.

Mark Levy: Well I thank you for coming on and conceding that there was a problem and obviously it should have been handled a bit better.

Then we come to Minister Steven Miles. Now he is the Environment Minister in Queensland, I have invited him to come on to the program every day this week and his office can't even be bothered to reply. But he has obviously got enough free time to do press conferences and tell media outlets it's all your fault. What would you say to Minister Miles?

Darren Chester: Well I would tell him to stop playing political games and stop trying to cover his own backside and just get on with doing his own job. My job is to make sure that we don't let this occur again.

Now you need to understand, Mark, that these foams that are used in firefighting are pretty much a legacy issue in terms they have been around for decades and the Airservices on all our federally leased civilian airports don't use those foams now. I am going to be asking, obviously, some questions about why Qantas still had a stock of that particular foam. It is also important to reassure the public that in relation to the use of these PFAS-based foams, this is an agent which is in a whole range of other things in their daily lives in terms of it's the same material that's used in Teflon frying pans, in gore-tex coats, on scotch guard on our furniture. It is actually quite a common agent in the community and there is actually no proven negative health impacts on people. But because it is regarded as a contaminant we need to take appropriate action. So I don't want to be scaring people unnecessarily about this PFAS product. The reason it has been used in firefighting foams is because it is very effective in putting out a fire involving fuel and that obviously keeps people safe in terms of if they are on aircraft or the firefighting agencies themselves.

Mark Levy: But having said that, Minister, having said that and Alan Jones has been all over this, it has been banned from being used in Queensland because of what it has done to the water basin in not only Oakey, but at Williamtown in Newcastle in New South Wales where this stuff has got into the water supply and people can't even shower in the water. That's what we're talking about. So we can't just sweep this under the carpet, we can't just say; oh no, it's just a spill, everything's okay, it's at recreation levels but please don't eat the fish out of the water. We're talking about stuff that people can't even shower in. We're talking about a substance that is banned for a reason. Yet the public, the general public in Queensland, had to wait three days to be told. I hope you appreciate why there is so much anger and disappointment from the people of Brisbane.

Darren Chester: Oh absolutely Mark, and I'm not by any stretch trying to sweep it under the carpet, I'm just trying to explain to people that the PFAS that we are talking about there is currently no national environmental standards on it and that's why the Department of Health has been working with other agencies to try and establish what is a safe baseline of this particular agent.

Now the issues in Oakey and Williamtown have been well publicised and we've had some issues there with Defence Force facilities where people now have been using bottled drinking water rather than the bore water that was available to them in the past. So your points are completely valid in the sense that we are very conscious of the fact that we have dozens and dozens of locations at local, state and federal level around Australia where this type of foam has been used in the past for firefighting services and it's quite a significant legacy issue that governments at all levels are trying to deal with.

We don't want to be hiding information from the public. We need to, at the same time, reassure the public that there is no imminent danger, in the sense that there hasn't been a proven health outcome as a result of exposure to this PFAS. But that doesn't change the fact that people are worried about it, and it does bio-accumulate in your bloodstream. If you drink water that has been contaminated with this substance, it does accumulate and you have a higher level. So I'm not trying to downplay the issue…

Mark Levy: Well it sounds like you are, Minister. It sounds like you are downplaying it. You are telling people that it is not proven that it has caused any serious health effects. Well, for me, if people can't shower in the water in Oakey in Queensland, if people can't go for a swim, if people can't eat fish out of waterways that has been infected and contaminated by this substance, well, that to me is pretty serious.

Darren Chester: But I'm saying to you, Mark, these are precautionary steps that the environmental departments and health departments have taken. I am just trying to let you know that there hasn't been cases where people have fallen ill as an immediate consequence of drinking water which has been contaminated with PFAS. There just hasn't been those occurrences. But the precautionary approach by governments has been to provide bottled water in those cases, and to advise people accordingly about eating shellfish in some of those locations. So that's the steps that governments have taken around Australia.

Mark Levy: Alright, Minister. Well I have been inundated with emails about this all week and people are not impressed and not happy with the way it has been handled. It has been a stuff up from the start, firstly at your level by not telling people, but more so on the State Government's level, because we have had people swimming in these waterways, fishing in these waterways, and it took them three days to tell everyone. It is unacceptable. But hopefully, Minister, we've learned from our mistakes.

Darren Chester: Well I think, Mark, the point you raised is completely valid in the sense that the public deserves to be informed, and there needs to be an open and transparent process around how we manage this substance at all the sites where it has existed in the past around Australia, and that's a challenge for governments at all levels.

Mark Levy: Well unlike the Environment Minister in Queensland, I certainly appreciate you making yourself available to us on the program today.

Darren Chester: All the best, Mark.