Blood results spark call for EPA to extend the red zone border south of Fullerton Cove

UNDER FIRE: EPA chair Barry Buffier told a budget estimates committee the agency was providing counselling, reticulated water and giving people "the best advice that we can" in Williamtown. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
UNDER FIRE: EPA chair Barry Buffier told a budget estimates committee the agency was providing counselling, reticulated water and giving people "the best advice that we can" in Williamtown. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

THE STATE’S environmental watchdog has agreed to reconsider the boundaries of Williamtown’s contamination red zone, amid mounting evidence that toxic firefighting chemicals have leached beyond its southern border. 

The Newcastle Herald can reveal that below the red line at Fullerton Cove, a couple have found shocking levels of firefighting chemicals in their blood and a mother has discovered elevated levels in her toddler. 

Since news of the contamination became public, neither family had taken precautions to protect themselves from the potentially carcinogenic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS), because they were under the impression their properties were unaffected. 

Lori and John Butler say they were even verbally reassured by NSW Environment Protection Authority officials.  

“We just thought we’re outside the red line, we’re safe,” said Ms Butler. “Isn’t that ridiculous. I thought we were okay because the EPA told us not to worry. 

“I was a bit naive about how the government works … I was always brought up to trust them. This isn’t the 1984 book.” 

When Labor MPs grilled EPA chair Barry Buffier over the matter at a budget estimates hearing on Friday, he would not say if it had performed testing in the area.

“What I would point out to you is that the polluter in Williamtown is Defence,” he said. 

When asked about the staggering blood readings residents were returning for the chemicals, Mr Buffier directed questions to NSW Health. 

“I am aware that NSW Health says that it is very difficult to correlate any blood testing results with contamination and it is very difficult to interpret those results.” 

Ms Butler, who lives on Cox’s Lane, originally didn’t think there was a need to have her blood tested. 

But having suffered health problems for a couple of years, she became concerned at reports in the Herald detailing high rates of cancer on Cabbage Tree Road and the potential for the chemicals to interfere with the immune system. 

The results showed Ms Butler had a perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) level of 45 ng/ml. Her husband was higher, at 48 ng/ml. They were both over 10 times the national average for their age group in 2011, and background levels have been plummeting in Australia.

Mr Butler said they weren’t aware blood tests were freely available to them until they asked their doctor, and the results came back with little explanation. 

“They almost begrudgingly carry out the test and then you get this result … I may as well be looking at an Egyptian hieroglyph,” he said. 

Several neighbours have returned elevated results. 

Shadow Environment Minister Penny Sharpe was scathing of the approach taken by authorities at Fullerton Cove, saying the blood results were particularly concerning at a time when acceptable ingestion limits for the chemicals had been dramatically lowered. 

“The EPA must step in and widen its testing regime and ensure that precautions are advised for the full extent of the contamination,” she said. 

An EPA spokesperson confirmed the agency was not undertaking any regular surface water sampling in the area of concern, but said Defence was in the process of addressing “data gaps” in risk assessments released last year. 

She stressed that the mapping of the red zone was not based on concentrations of the chemicals alone, but “surface and groundwater flow paths and catchment boundaries”. 

However, once Defence updated its risk assessments, the EPA would use that information to decide if any change to the investigation area was warranted. 

“The precautionary advice applies to the investigation area, as well as residents who are outside and may have concerns,” she said. 

But Port Stephens MP Kate Washington accused the EPA of failing to take control of the situation, leaving residents “prey to the polluter”. 

Mr and Mrs Butler are retired but feel it would be unethical to sell their property while there’s a danger the chemicals are in their creek, bore and tank water.  

“I’d think the EPA would be anxious to find these things out but there seems to be a very hands off approach, that’s our perception,” Mr Butler said. 

“We believe they’re the authority that can assist us in this puzzle.

“I’d hate to think an authority set up to protect people had been influenced by some other body to not carry out their responsibility.” ​