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Proposed airport quarantine site under contamination probe

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Since being used by American troops in World War II, the 30ha site near Brisbane Airport known as Damascus Barracks has remained relatively untouched. Until now.

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Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to proposed a purpose-built quarantine facility at the barracks with separate accommodation units to minimise the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. It would house some 1,000 international travellers but not replace quarantine hotels, instead being used to bring more stranded Australians home.

While Morrison had previously ruled out using Defence sites, and rejected a Queensland proposal linked to Wellcamp airport near Toowoomba, the Commonwealth Department of Finance identified the Meeandah barracks as “a potentially suitable site”.

“The Commonwealth invites the Queensland Government to participate in a joint formal assessment of this site,” Morrison wrote to Palaszczuk.

But that assessment comes as Australia deals with the rapidly spreading Delta variant, and an outbreak fuelled, in part, by quarantine breaches – including at the nearby airport Novotel, which has been under pressure dealing with both international and domestic travellers.

The outbreak has made purpose-built facilities a priority, and Palaszczuk now wants both the Meeandah proposal and the Toowoomba proposal fast-tracked.

It remains to be seen where exactly on the barracks the facility would be built, however it would be a significant undertaking. A corner of the site was previously annexed for an immigration detention facility but it only has capacity for 260 people (the ‘surge’ limit) and in much more confined spaces, so a 1000-bed, socially-distanced facility would be at least four times the size.

The Commonwealth has offered to pay for the new facility if the State builds and operates it, indicating it could one day become part of the immigration detention network, replacing local hotels already used to house detainees. Finance had previously discussed selling off the barracks before it became potentially useful to the Department of Home Affairs.

Being on Commonwealth land, run by the Army, the barracks is exempt from some Brisbane building regulations, yet it also comes with an unknown amount of historical baggage.

Asbestos had already been identified in the old warehouses by the Department of Defence, which recently moved to give the barracks its biggest upgrade in decades. Under tenders that have yet to go to contract, warehouses will be replaced and consolidated, along with offices and amenities, without even taking into account any quarantine facility.

Defence has also raised the need for soil and groundwater investigations due to the on-site waste disposal between the 1940s and 1970s. Other land near the airport and port is contaminated with chemicals including PFAS, and the barracks has underground fuel tanks.

Any earthworks for construction of new buildings could uncover both liquid and solid waste – some dating back to WWII.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests potential buried military hardware exists at unknown locations,” states one Defence document.

Another Defence document suggests that could include ammunition, most likely in the dams or marshes where dumped weapons and surgical equipment had previously been discovered.

The barracks is around 1000m from Pinkenba homes, with a drain running in between, in an area dominated by heavy industry, warehouses and aviation services.

On June 25, the Department of Defence was asked about the potential contamination, and status of the investigations, but has yet to respond.

Morrison had previously ruled out the use of Defence bases for quarantine, given their military use, but reportedly made an exception for Damascus Barracks because it has mostly been used for storage.

“The site is of a suitable size and meets the Commonwealth’s relevant key assessment criteria including access to an international airport taking regularly scheduled international commercial passenger flights and proximity to a principal referral hospital,” he wrote.

Morrison suggested the Queensland government might also have suitable alternative sites, but he remained opposed to the Toowoomba proposal because it did not meet the recently established criteria. A joint Commonwealth-State facility in Melbourne has been given the go-ahead and serves as a precedent.

Even if the Toowoomba proposal was to proceed, it would require the Commonwealth to help upgrade the private airport, whereas at Meeandah the Commonwealth would directly benefit from any investment. There is also likely to be less community opposition.

National Cabinet on Monday night resolved to implement further measures in hotel quarantine to minimise the risk of outbreaks.

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