Differing red zone maps highlight divide between Defence, EPA on Williamtown

WILLIAMTOWN residents have been issued with two contradictory maps of the red zone and two different sets of precautionary guidelines, fuelling speculation of a widening gulf between authorities over the handling of the contamination crisis. 

Residents were left baffled and high-level bureaucrats were forced to publicly defend the decision on Tuesday, after Defence issued its own map of Williamtown’s contamination zone that differed from a map released by the NSW Environment Protection Authority just over a fortnight ago. 

CONFUSION: The maps from the EPA, left, and Defence. Port Stephens MP Kate Washington slammed the differing maps as 'madness'. “It’s like the maps are a visual representation of the dysfunction between the state and the feds.”

CONFUSION: The maps from the EPA, left, and Defence. Port Stephens MP Kate Washington slammed the differing maps as 'madness'. “It’s like the maps are a visual representation of the dysfunction between the state and the feds.”

Defence also issued its own set of precautionary guidelines for Williamtown residents, that it admitted to the Newcastle Herald were less “conservative” than guidelines released last month by the EPA. 

It was timed to coincide with the release of two of the last Defence reports into the contamination at Williamtown, including an updated Human Health Risk Assessment. 

Port Stephens MP Kate Washington slammed the chain of events as “madness” and representative of the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group Rhianna Gorfine compared the situation to being in an episode of satirical political comedy Utopia

“It’s like the maps are a visual representation of the dysfunction between the state and the feds,” Ms Washington said. 

Regional director north with the NSW EPA Adam Gilligan was grilled at a public meeting in Williamtown on Tuesday night, where he said people should “focus” on his organisation’s map instead of Defence’s one. 

“Essentially from here on in the focus for people, in my view, is the NSW government map,” he said. 

“That’s the one that relates to your property and what you should do. The other is about the science. Because it’s just the science alone, it’s produced a different result.” 

Defence First assistant secretary of infrastructure Chris Birrer added that the Defence map was produced based on modelling from the sampling data. 

“It’s a science-based picture in time,” he said. 

The Defence map divides the contaminated area into four colour-coded “risk zones”. It provides separate sets of precautionary guidelines for each zone, to prevent a person from being exposed to unacceptable levels of toxic poly- and per-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] chemicals. 

Eating home grown fruit and vegetables was acceptable in some parts of the red zone, according to the Defence precautions. 

The NSW EPA map has three “management areas” and two sets of precautionary guidelines for residents. All residents are advised to avoid eating any home-grown produce, including fruit and vegetables. 

A Defence contractor said the difference was because the EPA was “looking more into the future”, while Defence was examining “what we know the community is doing right now”. 

“There’s a layer of conservatism in the EPA advice and their precautions,” Amanda Lee, a technical director with Defence contractor AECOM said.  

However she said the findings were still “consistent” between both organisations.