OPPOSITION LEADER Bill Shorten has called for “urgent action” to help residents flee Cabbage Tree Road in Williamtown, as the cancer toll on the rural stretch climbed to 50 on Wednesday.
It was a figure labelled “devastating” by Mr Shorten.
The Labor leader condemned a decision by the federal government to make residents of the road – who are stranded on contaminated, unsaleable properties – wait for another three years before a study determines whether living there is putting their health in jeopardy.
“The Williamtown community have battled this issue on their own for far too long,” Mr Shorten said.
“It’s well past time for the Turnbull government to step up and take urgent action. Instead, they’ve dragged their feet every step of the way.
“These families deserve certainty about their health – 2020 is too little, too late for families to be given answers.”
The Newcastle Herald put questions to the office of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday, but received no response.
Cabbage Tree Road runs parallel to the Williamtown RAAF base, and has been heavily polluted with toxic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] chemicals used in firefighting drills by Defence for more than three decades.
The 50th cancer case in the last 15 years has become Charlie Campbell, who died of a brain tumour last year at the age of 75.
Liz Campbell remembers discovering something was wrong with her father-in-law when they asked him to hold a newborn baby and he was too weak. Within a fortnight he was admitted to hospital, scans showing he had a rare form of brain cancer.
“They tried to operate but it was too deep,” Ms Campbell said.
Ms Campbell contacted the Herald after “many sleepless nights” for her and her husband, Greg. The couple are debating whether they should pay a second mortgage so they can take their three daughters, aged between three and 11, out of the red zone.
“We feel very lost,” she said. “We don’t want to end up having no money to pay bills or buy food while we’re paying two mortgages. But we don’t want to get to the point where we go: ‘we should have moved’.”
Charlie Campbell lived in Shortland but travelled to his son’s 20-acre Cabbage Tree Road property nearly every day for 15 years before he died. He looked after the family’s trotters: feeding them, watering them and washing them down.
The horses swim in a dam on the property and some of their foals have died unexpectedly. The family also had three dogs “just drop dead” at a young age.
Ms Campbell believes her father-in-law would have wanted to be included in investigations into a potential cancer cluster.
“Up until he stopped talking, when he went to the hospice, he used to say to me, what’s going on with that water? It worried him. He said you need to get the kids out of there,” she recalled.
One Nation senator Brian Burston said he had been “extremely disappointed” at the response when he questioned the head of the government’s PFAS taskforce, Senator James McGrath, over the cancer investigation.
“When I read Senator McGrath’s response, which included the line - ‘there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects’ - I almost fell off my chair,” Mr Burston said.
“I am livid at the lack of action and lack of compassion being shown by these muppets in government to the severely affected community … this response is basically calling the community hypochondriacs,” he said.