Monday, May 15, 2023

Commonwealth settles $132.7 million class action over PFAS contamination across Australia

This is just another baseless environmental scare. PFAS is not toxic to people in normal concentrations

The Commonwealth has settled a class action over PFAS contamination from firefighting foam at seven sites across the country.

The claim alleged landowners at the sites were exposed to poisonous chemicals in firefighting foam used at military bases, after it leached into groundwater.

The sites are Wagga Wagga (NSW), Richmond (NSW), Wodonga (VIC), Darwin (NT), Townsville (QLD), Edinburgh (SA), Bullsbrook (WA).

PFAS — or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — is the broad name for 4,700 chemicals that do not break down, and instead accumulate in soil, water and human bodies.

In settlement, Justice Michael Lee told the court he was glad the "difficult task" of getting the parties to agree was over.

"I congratulate those involved, I know it's not been a straightforward exercise," he said.

Health of those affected top concern

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the biggest issue surrounding PFAS is not financial. "This is another example of where we have to get occupational health and safety right, and getting it right in the first place would avoid these sorts of actions, " he said.

"PFAS has been an issue for those around airports ... people have across a range of communities suffered from the use of this. "The biggest concern I have isn't the financial one, it's the health of people affected by it."

Shine Lawyers' Craig Allsopp, who represented the claimants, said the outcome is a positive one, and still subject to approval by the federal court.

He said payments will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Study finds limited evidence of links between PFAS and disease

A major study of toxic chemicals that leaked into the groundwater of regional towns near Australian air force bases has found no conclusive evidence they increase the risk of cancer or disease.

"It is always a good outcome when group members reach an agreement ahead of a trial to avoid incurring the extra costs and risks of complex litigation through the court," he said.

"The settlement money, if approved, will go some way to compensate the seven communities in this class action for their losses, however, many are still stuck on contaminated land.

"With the group members I have spoken with the payment of compensation is recognition of their suffering."

"We've obtained compensation for property value here, but obviously it's about their whole lives and their homes, so it's going to make a big difference to a lot of people."

The conditional settlement has been made without admission of liability.

In 2020, the Commonwealth paid $212 million to affected residents of Oakey, Katharine and Williamtown, who had also launched a class action over the loss of property value.

A separate class action involving an eighth site, Wreck Bay in NSW, has been adjourned until 29 May.


Minister stops bid to kill Hunter coal mine expansion

The Environmental Defenders Office sought to overturn an approval allowing the expansion of Mt Pleasant mine. The Independent Planning Commision approved and application to extend the mine's life by 22 years to the end of 2048.
Environment groups have slammed federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek's refusal to stop the approvals of four coal projects, including the Mt Pleasant mine expansion near Muswellbrook.

The NSW Independent Planning Commission conditionally approved MACH Energy's expansion plans late last year.

The approval will extend the mine's life by 22 years to the end of 2048, a result that opponents argue would result in more than 800 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

Mt Pleasant was among 19 coal and gas projects Environment Justice Australia, acting on behalf of Environment Council of Central Queensland, applied under federal laws to have thrown out before they had completed their full environmental assessments.

The group argued that the potential emissions from the projects should rule them out of any further consideration.

But in order to stop a project from proceeding, federal laws require proof that its emissions would be a substantial cause of climate change effects on the Australian environment.

Ms Plibersek's department said on Thursday night that this had not been proven in regard to Mount Pleasant, the Narrabri Coal mine expansion, the Ensham coal mine extension and the Isaac River coal mine, both of which are located in Queensland's Bowen Basin

"The Albanese government has to make decisions in accordance with the facts and the national environment law - that's what happens on every project, and that's what's happened here. Since the election we've doubled renewable energy approvals to a record high. The government will continue to consider each project on a case-by-case basis, under the law," federal Department of Environment spokeswoman said.

The Environment Council of Central Queensland said it was considering all legal options including a Federal Court challenge and any injunctions needed.

"Today's decision means Minister Plibersek joins a long line of federal environment ministers who have said it's not their job to consider the climate risk of new coal and gas mines," President Christine Carlisle said.

"We're already dealing with floods, bushfires, and droughts and the evidence shows these new coal and gas proposals will make the devastation much, much worse.

"This is the real test for the minster. Australians who voted in favour of climate action have a right to feel betrayed by these decisions. We want our kids and our grandkids to be able to experience our natural wonders."

In giving its conditional approval for the expansion last year, the planning commission said the project would provide up to 447 direct and indirect jobs in the Muswellbrook and Upper Hunter, 643 jobs in the wider region, and 444 jobs elsewhere in NSW.

Mt Pleasant is also one of the few known habitats of the Hunter Valley Delma. The Delma is a species of legless lizard endemic to the Hunter Valley and Liverpool plains and was found on the mine site by researchers from the Australian Museum in 2022.

The Climate Council said Ms Plibersek's ruling was 'reckless' and 'out of line with the science'.

"This decision takes us in entirely the wrong direction to protect Australians from the worsening effects of dangerous climate change," Climate Council head of advocacy Jennifer Rayner said.

"The environment minister has a responsibility to scrutinise all risks of harm to the environment, and it is irresponsible that she has refused to look at the immense and indisputable climate harm that all new coal and gas projects pose.

"We cannot have new, highly polluting coal as we're living through the age of climate consequences. What we need is far more action to boost clean energy sources which can replace coal altogether, like the renewable hydrogen investments the government started in this week's budget."


Monarchists formally complain to ABC over ‘gratuitously offensive’ coronation coverage

It was not enough that Queen Elizabeth II’s death unleashed an embarrassing display of obsequiousness from our national institutions which culminated in an avowedly republican prime minister heading to London last weekend to pledge his allegiance to a foreign monarch.

Aunty accompanied its broadcast of Charles’ ostentatious affair with a dose of sceptical commentary about the monarchy, and dared to note that many First Nations Australians find the whole fawning over the royals a bit unpleasant.

Now, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, run by veteran royal-head David Flint, have taken things further, filing a formal complaint with the ABC over its coverage.

Flint’s mob, which has the honour of being the second most prominent monarchist group, claimed the broadcast breached three articles of the ABC’s standards relating to accuracy, impartiality, and harm and offence.

The heart of the complaint centres on the broadcaster’s alleged failure to present alternative views on the role of the crown in Indigenous matters. And while Liberal MP Julian Leeser was the only monarchist on a panel that included ABC everywhere man Stan Grant and leading republican Craig Foster, the broadcaster did reasonably well in the ratings battle for the event.

That didn’t satisfy Flint and Co, who claimed: “A number of Australians were unnecessarily and gratuitously offended, both through the imposition and forcing of and the hostile nature of the imposed programme.”


Minns orders ministers to find surplus land to rezone for homes

At last: a policy that might actually help

Premier Chris Minns will order his ministers to urgently find vacant blocks of public land to rezone for housing as part of a push to turn around the state’s flagging supply of new homes.

The move will likely meet resistance from government agencies that often prefer to retain surplus land for potential future expansion, including property in high-density parts of Sydney.

The premier will detail the policy at The Sydney Morning Herald’s Sydney 2050 Summit at the Sofitel Darling Harbour on Monday, where he will draw attention to the size of the housing supply crisis facing the state.

Minns said he would write to all ministers this week asking for their departments to audit their landholdings and identify surplus or under-utilised land parcels for rezoning. The audit is to be prioritised, and completed within months.

It follows revelations NSW will fail to meet its obligations under the National Housing Accord to build 314,000 new homes over the next five years, with the department forecasting just 180,000.

The state government is also concerned about the housing implications of migration after last week’s federal budget confirmed net overseas migration was predicted to be 400,000 in 2022-23, followed by 315,000 in 2023-24.

Minns said he wanted to leave no stone unturned. “I expect the NSW government to do its fair share to identify and open new land it owns for housing,” he said ahead of Monday’s Herald summit.

“The pressures on the rental market are extreme. But our job is to get more supply into the system to help alleviate some of that pressure. This isn’t going to be easy, but we have to start somewhere, and it’s a priority of my government.”

The government cautioned the audit would not be a panacea for the housing crisis by unearthing large swathes of idle land, but said it was an important measure. It also has a target for 30 per cent of all new homes on public land to be social, affordable or community housing.

One of the government agencies already involved in converting surplus land to affordable housing is the Transport Asset Holding Entity, which Labor pledged to abolish after a Herald investigation revealed cost shifting had inflated the budget bottom line by tens of billions of dollars.

Late last year TAHE said it had identified four sites for rezoning, at Newtown, Wolli Creek, Granville and Blacktown, and estimated they could provide about 300 apartments. Labor remains committed to dismantling TAHE, but Treasurer Daniel Mookhey said in April it could take as long as five years.

Asked early this year about its surplus land, NSW Health said it maintained property assets for potential expansion of clinical services, “in line with contemporary master planning principles”.

This was a strong consideration for hospitals and health services in high density areas of Sydney, or hospitals in major regional locations, NSW Health said. Land that became surplus to needs was disposed of in accordance with state government guidelines, it added.

Dwelling approvals rose in NSW in March by 3.1 per cent in seasonally adjusted terms. There were just over 3000 homes approved, about half of what the number was for most months in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

As part of the housing supply drive to be announced at Monday’s summit, Minns also wants to strengthen the role of the NSW Building Commissioner, David Chandler. The role was introduced by the previous government to combat dodgy practices and shortcuts in the construction industry, following the evacuation of the Opal Tower in Olympic Park at Christmas 2018.




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