DEFENCE has been accused of sitting on test results for four months, which showed toxic chemicals had entered the bore water and swimming pool of a young family living at Williamtown.
A member of the family has now been crushed by a breast cancer diagnosis, which came after months of using the water under the mistaken impression it had not been tainted by the contaminants.
The Newcastle Herald understands her home is one of at least four ‘red zone’ properties that have now tested positive for the chemicals, after originally recording a non-detect.
The disturbing trend has raised questions about whether the footprint of the toxic plume is continuing to grow.
“Findings like this cast further doubt that the decontamination program that the Department of Defence ... and the government is undertaking is working and adequate,” Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said.
To me, I view the RAAF as being the untouchables. They haven't been honest, and honesty's a big thing in my book."Connie Grant, Salt Ash resident
“When we hear reports like that, it is clear it isn’t being done thoroughly enough and fast enough.
“People finding this situation is getting worse and not improving; that’s an extraordinary indictment of how the federal government has handled this.”
The woman diagnosed with breast cancer has asked not to be identified by Fairfax Media.
For the two years since news of the contamination crisis broke in 2015, her family has not had access to town water. It’s meant they’ve been forced to rely on their tank and bore water for their yards, animals and to fill up the swimming pool on their semi-rural property.
But they “figured it was okay” because of a test on their bore last year, which did not detect any trace of the poly- and per-flouroalkyl [PFAS] chemicals.
Defence returned to retest the bore in February, with a four-month lag before the family were given the results. They were blindsided to discover their clean bore was now heavily contaminated.
The reading, of .47 micrograms per litre, was about six times Australia’s safe limit for PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The chemicals were also detected in the swimming pool.
“We were blown away when they found it in the pool,” the woman said. “We thought it was safe.”
PFAS chemicals are carcinogenic in animals and have been linked with various cancers and impaired immune function in humans, although the results are not conclusive.
About two months after the revelations about her bore, the woman was diagnosed with ‘triple negative’ breast cancer.
The sub-type of the disease occurs where none of the three receptors – estrogen, progesterone and HER2 – usually found in breast cancer tumours are present. The woman, who has no family history of breast cancer, has had a mastectomy and chemotherapy as part of an aggressive course of treatment.
The Herald contacted Defence for comment on the woman’s plight, and the new bore water detects, but it did not respond.
Another resident, Connie Grant, is also grappling with a positive detect on her property for the first time. The child care worker moved her family onto a two-acre block in Salt Ash in 2013.
The reading of .02 micrograms per litre in Ms Grant’s bore is only minimal, and within safe limits. But for the mother-of-five, it was upsetting the chemicals were found at all.
“It’s a detect, whereas before we weren’t a detect,” Ms Grant said. “So you worry does it change? Does it go up? Does it go down? Had it been there in the past or hadn’t it?”
Ms Grant has always been determined to give her children a “toxic-free” lifestyle: the family doesn’t even own a microwave.
But she has been unable to prevent the PFAS chemicals from entering their blood at concentrations well above national averages.
Ms Grant’s daughter, aged 11, has a blood PFAS level nearly as high as her 40-year-old husband.
“So it’s always the doubt in your head now, for their wellbeing as well,” she said.
“We’ve just tried to tick every single box to limit their exposure. But then you hear from other people, ‘it’s in the air, the soil’s contaminated’.
“What’s the point of living on two acres if you can’t go outside and play in the dirt?”
Elderly resident Margaret Scott was baffled at a detect in her bore, which tested negative for the contamination six months earlier.
Ms Scott and her husband are nearly ready to downsize, but are anxious about their property’s value.
“We’re nearly 74,” Ms Scott said. “An acreage is getting a bit too much.”
Paterson MP Meryl Swanson called on the Environment Protection Authority to identify the contaminant’s source in the new detections.
“If indeed it is established that the pollution originated at RAAF Base Williamtown, then Defence owes those affected an explanation,” she said. “It is absolutely unacceptable that contamination continues to escape a Defence facility and taint the water and land of people and families.”
Ms Grant is torn between acknowledging the situation could be worse – at least her family has a roof over its head – and disbelief at their predicament.
“One day my daughter was asking me: ‘mum is this contaminated water?’” she recalled. “I never thought my child living in Australia would have to say that to me.
“To me, I view the RAAF as being the untouchables. They haven't been honest, and honesty's a big thing in my book. I want them now to stop telling lies and just be upfront, but it still doesn't seem to be happening.”