Williamtown RAAF contamination detail revealed in freedom-of-information documents

FREEDOM of information documents show the Department of Defence found per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals [PFAs] 30 times above recommended levels one kilometre away from the Williamtown RAAF base in June 2012, three years before the public was alerted in September 2015.

SEEING RED: One of a series of ribbons hung on fencing at Williamtown in September, marking two years of 'red zone' contamination. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers.

SEEING RED: One of a series of ribbons hung on fencing at Williamtown in September, marking two years of 'red zone' contamination. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority says there is nothing new in the documents, but the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents’ Action Group disagrees, saying that “previously Defence and other agencies had only confirmed results for off-base testing closer to the 2015 date of the results becoming public”.

Earlier freedom-of-information applications have shown that Defence was aware of its growing problems at Williamtown as far back as May 2003, when a “confidential” 137-page report – Environmental Issues Associated with Defence Use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) – was published with its warning that the product in long use at the base was “implicated with a wide variety of cancers”.

Despite the years that the authorities knew of the situation, the public was first notified on Friday, September 4, 2015, when residents were warned and the NSW EPA suspended fishing in nearby waterways.

At the time, EPA chief executive Barry Buffier said the EPA first learned of the problem the month before, on August 18, 2015, when it received a “draft report” from Defence.

But the freedom-of-information documents reveal a meeting on May 10, 2012, between the EPA and Hunter Water, with “similar discussions” held with Port Stephens Council on May 31, 2012.

Asked about the discrepancy in timing, the EPA referred the Newcastle Herald to a February 2016 federal parliamentary inquiry into defence force contamination, to which Mr Buffier gave evidence. That inquiry found that consultants GHD handed Defence a “detailed” report in March 2013, identifying “nearly all of the investigated sites as 'very high' risk”.

Despite this, Mr Buffier told the inquiry that this “report 'did not identify a clearly defined route by which contaminants were finding their way to humans, known as an exposure pathway' and therefore 'did not provide sufficient information at the time to notify the community'.” 

A June 2012 “background” memo says Defence had hired an independent consultant to take samples on and around the base, including at “high-risk receptors” including Hunter Water’s groundwater bore-fields and surface water locations downstream of the base.

It says Hunter Water and the EPA were told PFAs had been found in ground water and surface water “on site and leaving the site” at levels above US “guideline trigger values”.

At the Dawson’s Drain stormwater network emptying into Fullerton Cove, elevated levels of PFOS were found in three of four sampling points, in one case 30 times the guideline and higher than “the concentrations at the offsite stormwater discharge point of the base”.

The emails show the EPA told Defence it had “no jurisdiction” at the base, saying Port council was the “appropriate regulatory authority”. The EPA also said there was no need to report under Section 60 of the Contaminated Land Management Act: Section 60 is the “duty to report contamination” part of the legislation.

Hunter Water was concerned about “public perception” and the need for a communications plan. It raised concerns about human health risks and feared that shutting bores would impact on its ability to sustain water resources.

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