Williamtown RAAF Base chemical found in soil at two more Hunter sites

THE toxic chemical at the centre of the Williamtown RAAF Base contamination has been found in soil at Lake Macquarie and Singleton, and the NSW government has committed to further tests.

In April, the state Environment Protection Authority and mining industry body Coal Services ordered testing of the Mines Rescue stations in Argenton and Singleton Heights.

The tests found PFAS – the toxin that has left Williamtown residents fearful and angry following the Newcastle Herald’s reporting of that suburb’s contamination – in soil and sediment samples taken on and off-site.

Resources firm GHD has been appointed to conduct the next investigations into whether either site contains enough PFAS to constitute a contamination.

The investigations will look at both stations’ historic use of firefighting foam that contained PFAS, a practice Mines Rescue says its workers carried out from the 1970s until 2002.

Also examined will be how the land is used around the two stations, including the presence of homes, commercial properties and farms. 

While PFAS in soil isn’t considered a risk, its presence in groundwater could cause the dire health prognoses and fall in land values seen at Williamtown.

“Residents around the stations are connected to town water so this decreases the likelihood of exposure however, further testing will help us to determine all the potential pathways,” the EPA’s executive director Hazardous Incidents and Environmental Health Sarah Gardner said.

“Because the NSW government is taking a precautionary approach, we need to determine if there are any pathways from the Singleton and Argenton stations that mean people might come in contact with PFAS.”

The EPA is also consulting Lake Macquarie and Singleton councils.

Lake Macquarie council has contacted sporting clubs based near the Argenton Mines Rescue station including Waratah Golf Club, Lake Macquarie BMX Club and Argenton United Football Club, whose home field backs onto the station.

Peter Cooper, the football club’s president, said he had spoken with a representative of Mines Rescue.

“He has assured me that there’s no risk to human health,” Mr Cooper said.

“I’m not an expert. I’ll be trying to get as much information as I can from Mines Rescue, and I’m not going to make any negative comments about this until they do these tests and see what they show.”

Mines Rescue called the initial Argenton and Singleton test results “relatively low and not unexpected” given the historic use of PFAS-containing foams.

“Although initial indicators say the risk is low, we are fully supportive of the EPA’s recommendation to look into this further,” Mines Rescue general manager Matthew Fellowes said. 

“It is important for us to gain clarity and certainty of the situation so that all the appropriate actions can be taken.”

Ms Gardner, of the EPA, said it was “important to note that there is no consistent evidence of any human health effects related to PFAS exposure”.

Those assurances follow a recent Herald investigation that found 39 people residing on a stretch of Cabbage Tree Road, Williamtown, with some of the highest pollution readings in the suburb’s contamination ‘red zone’, have had cancer in the past 15 years.

PFAS used at the Williamtown RAAF base in firefighting foam until it was officially phased out in 2012 were found to have contaminated the suburb’s groundwater, and several government agencies then failed to tell residents. 

A toxic legacy has since emerged of parents worried about the health their children, families with plunging property values, and firefighters living with long-term illnesses associated with the chemicals. 

The Herald’s investigations have made the contamination a bipartisan national issue, and the Turnbull government ultimately promised $55 million to address the contamination crisis.

Testing at Argenton and Singleton Heights will continue during August and a report on the findings is due in late September.

The EPA launched a statewide investigation last year into the historic use of PFAS, primarily in airports, firefighting training centres and industrial sites.

Mines Rescue has publicly volunteered to cooperate with the investigation.

As well as the Hunter stations, testing has begun at Mines Rescue Lithgow.

Another station at Woonona near Wollongong is considered to have opened too recently, in 2008, to need to be tested.

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