History repeating in Williamtown contamination disaster

FED UP: Williamtown residents at a community meeting with Defence on Tuesday night. Picture: Marina Neil
FED UP: Williamtown residents at a community meeting with Defence on Tuesday night. Picture: Marina Neil

THE sorry saga of toxic firefighting foam contamination at Williamtown is a depressingly familiar situation and feels like history repeating.

What’s happening at Williamtown, the threat to people’s health, the public administration failures, the environmental damage and the burden left on residents is what happened just a few kilometres away and decades earlier at north Lake Macquarie.

When the Boolaroo Pasminco lead and zinc smelter finally closed in 2003, it left a NSW government file that is a case study in public service incompetence and neglect of its primary role to serve the public interest. 

It also left three suburbs with large swathes of land polluted by heavy metals to be cleaned up at residents’ expense. The cost is too large to calculate.

A study in 1991 found that 84 per cent of children under five living in the vicinity of the smelter had dangerously high blood lead levels that can cause brain damage and life-long health problems.

The state government failed the people of north Lake Macquarie, failed as a regulator, failed the environment, then failed to manage the clean-up, known at the Lead Abatement Strategy. It even failed to check if the strategy worked. 

The scary thing about Boolaroo is that it is not a one-off example, an island of failure in a sea of success. 

It is unfortunately not even the worst example.

What beggars belief now, decades later when we all thought they’d know better, and maybe even have learnt some lessons from the past, is that it’s happening all over again just 35 kilometres up the road.

It’s a depressingly familiar story.

It seems the sad tale of Boolaroo is destined to be repeated over and over.

But in the case of Williamtown there are a few new jaw-dropping twists to the familiar plot.

At Williamtown, the polluter is not an international company trying to do business on the cheap and spewing toxic chemicals all over neighbouring suburbs, it’s the Department of Defence, also known as our very own federal government.

That’s right, the polluter is actually the people, by law, tasked with protecting us.

And it’s painfully obvious, from the state and federal governments’ failure to work together, that they can’t agree on anything in relation to the environmental disaster, that continues to spread while they bicker and infight.

When a major pollution event happens, there are many courses of action governments and polluters can take.

Their responsibilities, by law, cover everything from stopping the pollution to overseeing the clean-up, administering punishment and ensuring residents’ safety.

But, as usually happens and is painfully obvious at Williamtown, the reality is residents’ needs come last.

After watching the sorry situations in Boolaroo and now Williamtown unfold, the unavoidable conclusion is that governments’ efforts largely boil down to one question: how much is it going to cost us?

A major event such as the present contamination disaster at Williamtown always creates a demand for explanations and answers.

Unfortunately, we can see at Williamtown the demand for answers quickly gives way to an obsessive government impulse to avoid responsibility.

As both sides point the finger of blame it’s the residents, who have done nothing to cause the disaster, that continue to suffer.