Construction of simulator facility at Williamtown base must not make PFAS contamination worse: MP

The Department of Defence will be grilled over a proposal for a new building on the Williamtown RAAF base on Friday, amid fears construction work has already triggered a spike in the levels of toxic contamination running off the site. 

Defence officials will face the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works over plans for new simulator facilities at seven bases across the country, including Williamtown.

In a submission to the inquiry, Labor member for Paterson Meryl Swanson said she was supportive of the expansion of the base, but they must not worsen the flow of perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS) into the  community or contribute to dust pollution. 

She also called for more protection for construction workers on the base. 

“I would urge that they be made fully aware of the health risks, and be protected as best they can from exposure. I would urge that PFAS blood testing of employees and contractors take place, and that air monitoring take place on the base as part of a broader air monitoring program in the area,” she wrote. 

The earthworks have been blamed by residents after testing showed levels of contamination in a drain outside the base had increased 70-fold within six months.

A report commissioned by Defence found that concentrations detected in water on the base had jumped from 500 to 3000 micrograms per litre within a year. It concluded the construction activities could have been the cause. 

Spokesperson for the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group Rhianna Gorfine said the community was alarmed at the prospect of anything that could make the problem worse when blood tests were already showing elevated levels of the chemicals in children.

“The community on any given day can drive past the base and see covered piles of soil with the plastic blowing off them and plumes of dust in the air from the work,” she said. “It’s happening at the same time blood results are coming back elevated and families are being forced out of their homes.”

“It may be only a small mention for Defence within a committee meeting but the stress and anxiety for us are growing on a daily basis.” 

Defence documents available online did not specifically address PFAS contamination but a report said the environmental risks associated with the project would be “minor and manageable” through the development of site-specific management plans.

It also downplayed any risk to workers. 

“No special or unusual public safety risks have been identified in this process. The successful construction contractor will also be required to submit a Safety Plan...prior to the start of any construction activities,” it said. 

If approved, construction will begin in April next year with an anticipated completion date of April 2018. 

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