THE LAW firm acting for residents whose livelihoods have been devastated by the Williamtown contamination scandal has given the Department of Defence a November deadline to provide them with proposals on “compensation for their losses” and a “clear remediation” plan.
If the requests set out in Gaden’s letter of demand are not met by the end of this month, the firm will lodge formal documents commencing a class action in the Federal Court of Australia.
Gadens partner Ben Allen urged Defence to take the opportunity to avoid litigation and placing “further stress and anxiety” on the members of the class action, whose properties have been contaminated by perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS), used in firefighting foam at the Williamtown RAAF base for around 40 years.
Mr Allen accused Defence of continuing to use the firefighting foam for more than a decade after it was informed the chemicals were persistent in the environment and potentially hazardous to human and animal health.
“As early as 2000 the US Environmental Protection Authority contacted foreign governments highlighting the scientific evidence of links between the chemicals and adverse effects such as cancer, on animals, ecosystems and humans,” he said.
“It recommended they be phased out.
“However, as late as 2011 and possibly beyond this time, the Department of Defence continued to use the foam and disposed of it into the water catchment surrounding the base.
“It only informed the Williamtown residents of the contamination just over a year ago and the local communities and business owners are still awaiting any positive action or solution from Defence.”
A 2013 report commissioned by Defence showed the transition to a safe foam in all of the base’s fire-fighting systems was not officially signed off on until 2012, despite Defence officials insisting the phase out began in 2004.
But some residents have already begun to raise concerns about the mounting psychological and financial toll during what looms as a series of drawn-out legal battles for compensation.
While the re-opening of waterways has seen commercial fishers start out on the long road to recovery, there is little relief on the horizon for business owners in the ‘red zone’ whose bottom lines have gone into freefall.
Salt Ash business owner Rob Roseworne lodged a compensation claim against Defence in July over a significant downturn in trade since news of the contamination was made public in September last year.
“When asked about people being out of pocket, the senior ADF officer on the base, Craig Heap, has been telling all and sundry to put a claim in,” he said.
However he has not seen any progress in the past three months.
During his last contact with the department, he was told his claim would be assessed in “due course”.
“When I asked her about the how do we cover our expenses in the meantime, she said you have to do the best you can,” Mr Roseworne said.
“If assistance isn’t forthcoming, businesses will be hurting really badly. Will there need to be another Christmas where children go without presents because of Defence’s actions?”
Mr Roseworne said as a civilian, it was a daunting prospect to be taken on the full might of Defence special counsel.
“Since when is the polluter in charge of deciding whether or not compensation is paid? Once more it’s the fox in charge of the hen house.”
Those sentiments were echoed in federal parliament this week as a motion by One Nation senator Brian Burston was unanimously passed, calling on the federal government to “expedite” environmental investigations at Oakey and Williamtown, to enable landholders to “address the dilemma of land remediation or relocation and move on with their lives.”
Mr Burston said he was “quite excited” that the motion was passed.
“Unfortunately we can’t put money bills to the Senate, but we can certainly put motions forward that virtually force the government to expedite investigations,” he said.
“That’s what I promised to do and I’ll continue to do that until it’s resolved to the satisfaction of the people.”
During the subsequent debate, Labor senator Doug Cameron pointed out that the Defence Force was “pretty well known for its capacity to avoid any legal implications for the actions they take.”
“Thankfully the Defence Force has some pretty smart people, but they also have some pretty smart operators trying to make sure they have no litigation come their way,” he said.
Senator Cameron took aim at Coalition senators for treating the Defence Force with a sort of reverence, that he argued was – at times – unwarranted.
“In this place you almost have to talk about the Defence Force in hushed tones, as if they can do no wrong. Every time a Coalition member stands up, they wrap the Australian flag around themselves and talk about the Defence Force in hushed tones.
“Well the Defence Force can get it wrong too.”
Senator Cameron was drawn into a war of words with West Australian Liberal senator Chris Back, who said that doctors in Newcastle had failed to put forward any evidence of a cancer cluster in the Williamtown area.
“From an epidemiological point of view, we must be very guarded about going out and accepting and then escalating something for which there is not medical evidence to a level where it unnecessarily causes concern to a community of people,” Senator Back said.
But Senator Cameron said he could see potential parallels between the way some people were speaking about the contamination at Williamtown and his days as an official with the metal workers union, when its members were dying with mesothelioma but were being told white asbestos would not hurt them.
“I used to go up to Barraba mine and see people there – boilermakers, fitters, machinists, labourers – covered in asbestos, their skin as pale as anything, dying young because of mesothelioma, and the company was telling people that there was not a problem.
“If you listen to Senator Back. you would think you could spread it on your toast in the morning and you would be okay. I do not think it is as clear as that,” he said.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon called on the Turnbull government to “sort out” the issue out with the banks after reports of at least one resident receiving a foreclosure threat from Commonwealth Bank.
“The bank claims it was an administrative error, sending the letters, but anybody who has been involved in this crisis would be deeply skeptical of that claim,” she said.
The possibility of a cancer cluster will be looked at as part of an epidemiological study taking in residents in Williamtown and surrounding the Oakey Army Aviation Base in Queensland, where people have been exposed to the same contaminants.
At a community drop in session held on Friday, residents were told funding had already been set aside for the planning phase, a process expected to take approximately six months.
They were also told a formal program of blood testing will get underway next month.
Resident Kim Mitchell said she had “complete faith” in the class action but was “devastated” when the drop-in heard Australian health authorities would not accept advice from the United Nations that the chemicals were linked to serious disease.
“To have them stand in front of residents and say they’re safe...my biggest concern is they are misleading the community. I wish everyone would do some research and read up on the chemicals. It’s not hard to find,” she said.