14 October 2015
On the fourth of September, the people of Newcastle woke to the headline Toxicity Warning Around Air Base. This was shocking news to many in my community, including me.
Investigations undertaken by the Department of Defence had uncovered soil and groundwater contamination on RAAF Base Williamtown and surrounding offsite areas.
As more information emerged, we learnt that despite the Department of Defence, New South Wales Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and Port Stephens Council all being aware of the contamination for a number of years, the community had, until now, been left in the dark.
The chemicals in question Perfluorooctane Sulfonate known as PFOS and Perfluorooctanoic Acid or PFOA, were components of firefighting foam previously used on Base for fire fighting and fire training purposes. They are classified as emerging contaminants – namely, chemicals or materials that are characterised by a perceived, potential or real threat to human health or the environment.
In response to the headline news of contamination, local fisheries were shut, and the community was advised not to consume eggs, milk, fish and prawns from the area, or drink water from non-town water sources.
The residents of Williamtown and surrounds, including RAAF Base personnel, have many many questions with very few answers. Their legitimate concerns about the impact of this contamination on their health, the health of their children and animals, and the ongoing safety of their water supply is understandable.
Beyond these immediate and valid health concerns, local businesses are being pushed to the brink, with some undergoing their second month of being unable to earn an income and their mortgage stress is very real.
As a community we understand that not all of the answers to our questions about health and safety are available today.
But we do expect the relevant government departments and agencies to work together and to be doing everything they can to help alleviate the real anxiety being experienced by residents.
To date, this hasn’t occurred.
I have brought the concerns of the community to the attention of the Defence Minister and the Environment Minister and have continued to update and share with them the ongoing concerns and frustrations of residents as I become aware of new and emerging issues raised at local forums, community meetings I have hosted or direct contact with those affected who have shared their personal stories with me.
Promises have been made by officials that communication will improve, that drinking water will be delivered, that adequate testing will be undertaken and that compensation would be made available to affected businesses and residents but the lived reality is that none of this is occurring fast enough or indeed at all, and there is a general lack of understanding and empathy for the affected community.
It has been nearly 6 weeks now since the news of the contamination broke and residents are increasingly frustrated by the lack of clarity and uncertainty ahead.
The fact that we now have 2 ‘red zones’ of contamination being investigated, with distinctly different boundaries, depending on whether you are using Defence or NSW EPA data is indicative of the confused approach being taken.
The residents of Williamtown are understandably frustrated by the requirement for them to negotiate their way across 7 or more government departments and agencies crossing traversing all three levels of government.
I have recommended to the Assistant Defence Minister and Defence Officials in Canberra that a single point of contact is established, one that is embedded in the community, to provide guidance and assistance to help alleviate much of the distress and confusion.
I join with my community in calling for a thorough and systematic approach to the testing of soil, groundwater, bore water and livestock at all properties within the affected area.
The issue of compensation for primary industries and individuals suffering economic loss and reputational damage due to the contamination requires immediate attention. I understand the NSW EPA has provided to Defence, relevant information regarding potential mechanisms for calculating compensation payments. I urge Defence to honour the commitment that has been made to provide compensation to effected residents and businesses as a matter of urgency.
I have consistently asked that Defence takes a lead role in the ongoing management of the contamination and genuine engagement with my local community. The community must be kept well informed, assured that plans are in place to deliver a safe water supply, be adequately compensated for any loss and be part of the conversations about possible solutions.