The meeting was a long way from parliament house – in a corrugated shed on a Wiliamtown cattle farm.
But Defence Minister Marise Payne has promised the message will travel back to Canberra, after she met with about 20 residents caught in the fallout of the RAAF base contamination scandal on Wednesday.
She was accompanied by the head of the Prime Minister’s perfluoroalkyl [PFAS] taskforce, Senator James McGrath, who declared the government was “deadly serious” about finding a solution to the crisis.
“The most compelling takeout of today's meeting is that the people who are part of this community...want to be empowered to make decisions about what they do in relation to their own futures on their own properties, amongst their own community, for their children and for themselves,” Ms Payne said as she fronted the waiting media following the meeting.
“That is the message that we will take back today.”
It was Ms Payne’s second visit to Williamtown but her first time stepping off the defence base into the ‘red zone’.
She was hosted by elderly farmer Len O’Connell and his wife Pam. The Herald previously revealed Mr O’Connell has a staggering level of the toxic perfluoroalkyl [PFAS] chemicals in his blood but is trapped on a property he can not sell.
Media could not attend the meeting but residents could be heard on the verge of tears as they told their stories, one accusing Defence of “criminal negligence”.
Ms Payne rejected that allegation, saying when the contaminants were widely used there was no awareness of their “persistent” nature and in Williamtown, no knowledge of how easily they could travel in the water table. She said legal liability was a matter for the taskforce, but she would take residents’ “feedback” to senior government representatives.
Senator McGrath confirmed he was considering the issue of buy-backs but said it would be “wrong” to give a timeframe on when a decision would be made or to give examples of what other solutions the government was considering.
He said there was “no proof, no scientific evidence that can strongly back up that PFAS causes health impacts upon people”.
Senator McGrath would not directly answer when asked if that put the Australian government into conflict with the US EPA, which has argued the “weight of evidence” supports the conclusion the chemicals are hazardous to human health.
“What the Australian government is doing is putting money into health studies to make sure here in Australia we actually know what PFAS does do or doesn’t do,” Senator McGrath said.