Fiskville final report published

Published:  31 May, 2016

Firefighters that have trained at Australia’s Fiskville CFA Training College are entitled to redress after being exposed to chemicals that can cause cancer, a Victorian parliamentary committee has found. SEE VIDEO

The committee, which was set up in 2014 to look into claims of contamination at the site, also found that members at all levels of the Country Fire Authority’s executive management had some degree of knowledge of the contamination and repeatedly failed to deal with the risk it posed to those living, working and training at Fiskville.

‘Instead of ensuring the safety of the people who protect us, some CFA senior management and board members allowed firefighters and their families to be exposed to toxic chemicals with known links to cancer and other illnesses,’ said committee chair Bronwyn Halfpenny, MP, in her foreword to the inquiry’s final report.

The final report was published in May 2016 and contains 125 findings and 31 recommendations. It is the result of an in-depth inquiry covering everything from the history of the site, the contamination and how it occurred, to the organisation of the CFA and its approach to health and safety, the role of past and present CFA executive management, the regulation of Fiskville by Worksafe and other regulatory agencies, the consequences of the contamination for human health, remediation and justice for the victims.

The Fiskville site was set up in 1972 to coordinate the training of Victorian firefighters on a state-wide basis and became the CFA’s principal training centre. It is described as the ‘spiritual home’ of the CFA and the report acknowledges the emotional attachment of many CFA members to the facility. It is this attachment, says the committee, which has contributed to the anger and sense of betrayal felt by those connected to Fiskville over the CFA’s handling of the issue.

As part of the inquiry, the committee found that the contamination at the site took place over two ‘distinct but related eras’. The first relates to the chemicals that were stored, burned and buried at the site – many of these unknown as a result of poor record keeping – leading to the contamination and the exposure of those working and training there, and the second to the contamination of the water used in firefighting training.

The dominant contaminants at Fiskville have been identified as PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals), mainly PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perflurooctanoic acid) contained in firefighting foams. The report states that firefighters and others working at Fiskville were subject to a ‘multiplier effect’ because of the mix of chemicals they were exposed to, resulting in a more dangerous effect than each chemical individually.

The impact of these exposures is catalogued in the report in the form of an examination of the health effects of chemical exposure, health studies related to Fiskville, and witness testimony.

A study by Cancer Council Victoria analysed the cancer risk of 599 men who worked and trained at Fiskville and identified 61 with cancer and four with secondary cancer. The most common cancers were prostate and melanoma.

A second study from Monash University commissioned by the CFA investigated the risk of cancer and mortality for individuals who lived and worked at Fiskville, focusing on 606 people. The study found that those in the high risk group had double the risk of cancer, with high incidence of melanoma and testicular cancer, while those in the medium risk group showed an excess of brain tumours.

The inquiry received submissions and heard statements from over 500 witnesses, many of whom were suffering from illnesses they feared may have been caused by contamination at Fiskville.

These witness testimonies, such as the one from Colin Cobb who was a senior instructor at Fiskville from 1984-87, present a tragic litany of illnesses, mainly cancers, in people who worked at, lived near or attended school at Fiskville. Another witness spoke of a number of birth defects suffered by members of his recruit course who trained at the facility. There was also evidence from former students at the Fiskville school, local residents, contractors and others affected by unsafe practices at the site.

While acknowledging that the link between hazardous materials and diseases is difficult to prove, committee chair Bronwyn Halfpenny MP said in her foreword that the committee heard extensive evidence highlighting the link between the two and that the report ‘validates the testimony’ of the witnesses.

‘To the question: “Could unsafe practices at Fiskville have caused my illness?” – the answer is, in all likelihood, yes,’ she stated. ‘To the question: “Did CFA management and Board members know that practices at Fiskville were unsafe or contravened standards and safety regulations?” – the answer is yes, some did.’

On this point the report is particularly damning. The contaminations claims first came to public attention with the publication of an article in the Herald Sun in December 2011 in which former Fiskville instructor and later CFA chief officer Brian Potter spoke of his concerns about the chemicals he and others had been exposed to, and his own illnesses which he feared were a result of this exposure.

Despite former CFA staff and management stating that they were unaware of health and safety concerns at Fiskville, the committee found evidence that knowledge of the contamination of the site existed within the CFA executive management and at board level before this article was published.

For example, the report states that the board was made aware of contamination of PFCs at the site in 2010 by Air Services Australia and did not investigate, and that it was aware ‘from 2009 at the latest’ that contaminants in Dam 1 were an ongoing potential health threat.

Furthermore, the report states that CFA senior management repeatedly avoided taking responsibility for water quality at Fiskville, ignored the concerns of the United Firefighters Union about possible contamination and failed to implement recommendations of external reviews in the area of occupational health and safety. The committee went on to say that the CFA also failed in its responsibility to provide sufficient information about the contamination to those affected, and this failure heightened the anxiety of staff, trainees and the local community about the issue.

The CFA was not alone in failing the Fiskville firefighters and local community, however. The report also criticised Victoria’s occupational health and safety regulator Worksafe for being ‘entirely reactive’ in the performance of its regulatory role at Fiskville.

In particular, the inquiry found that Worksafe inspectors failed to address many of the occupational health and safety issues that were examined during the inquiry, despite 117 visits to the site between 1991 and 2011, and that it failed to adequately respond to two requests by the United Firefighters Union to investigate concerns at Fiskville. In the first instance, the watchdog did not carry out any independent tests when asked to investigate water quality, and in the second, took an unacceptable length of time to respond to a possible breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.

Moorabool Shire Council and the Environmental Protection Agency Victoria also come in for criticism, with the report saying of the EPA that it failed in its statutory role at Fiskville by allowing the CFA to contaminate the site ‘to such an extent that it has been closed down and is now the subject of complex and very expensive remediation’.

In addition to the failings of the CFA and others, the late delivery of the report is also addressed. Its publication was delayed twice, attributed to the unnecessary delay in obtaining documents from all departments, particularly the CFA. The Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office was ‘obstructive and uncooperative in the document recovery process’, taking too long to release documents, making unnecessary redactions and ‘swamping’ the committee with paperwork. This frustrated the committee to such an extent that it tabled a ‘Special Report on the production of documents’ in November 2015.

The report also makes a number recommendations covering the entire scope of the inquiry, including that EPA Victoria conduct regular environmental testing of firefighting training facilities in Victoria and that the Victorian Government audit CFA occupational health policies. A number of recommendations centre around the need for greater knowledge of the behaviour and effects of PFCs and better monitoring of levels in firefighters.

Finally, the committee recommends a dedicated redress scheme for those affected by Fiskville that is developed in consultation with victims, has a low evidentiary requirement and a range of redress options that take into account the differing needs of individuals.

Download the full report at: www.parliament.vic.gov.au/enrrdc

  • Operation Florian

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