THE TURNBULL government has been called on to intervene in a sewage saga that has run into its fourth year, cost taxpayers $7.5 million for an unused pipe and left a bad taste in the mouths of Williamtown residents.
Defence admitted this week that the Williamtown RAAF base is still not connected to the region’s sewerage network, with no end in sight to what appears to have become a war of attrition with Hunter Water.
When the Newcastle Herald revealed the dispute in January, 2016, Defence rubbished suggestions the parties were at an impasse and said the matter would be resolved within a month.
But two years later, Hunter Water claims Defence is still refusing to sign a standard trade waste agreement setting limits on the amount of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] chemicals it discharges into the sewer.
It means the base’s sewage – containing the toxic firefighting chemicals – continues to pool in unlined ponds on a neighbouring private property, with nothing to stop the toxins seeping into the Tomago Sandbeds aquifer during heavy rain.
Shadow assistant Defence Minister Gai Brodtmann said it was time for Defence Minister Marise Payne to take control of the situation.
“Why hasn’t the Turnbull government shown leadership and stepped in to resolve this issue sooner?” she said. “I’m concerned at how long this negotiation has taken, and strongly encourage both Defence and Hunter Water to come to an agreement as soon as possible.”
Minister Payne could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Spokesperson for the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group Rhianna Gorfine slammed it as “unthinkable” that Defence would be seeking to flush PFAS into the sewer network.
“If they can’t connect a sewer after four years of negotiations, what hope have we got of them decontaminating the area?” she said.
A Defence spokesperson said negotiations were continuing and it would be seeking a high level meeting with the Hunter Water board.
“Defence remains committed to finalising the trade waste agreement as quickly as possible,” they said.
“Negotiations have been delayed due to a number of commercial and legal matters. These matters have been complicated by the emerging issue of PFAS as a contaminant, and, therefore, the lack of a NSW trade waste regulatory framework incorporating PFAS management.”
A Hunter Water spokesperson reiterated that all commercial and industrial customers were forced to sign trade waste agreements to protect the environment.
He said Defence could not “guarantee” that PFAS in its wastewater would meet requirements.
The RAAF base is serviced by a private sewage treatment plant, constructed in the 1950s.
The need to decommission the ageing plant and connect the base to Hunter Water’s sewerage network was identified over a decade ago and was described as “urgent” by Paterson MP Bob Baldwin in 2012, who warned the region’s drinking water supply was being put in jeopardy.
By late 2014, $7.5 million in taxpayer funds had been spent on the construction of a pipe and Defence and Hunter Water began negotiations over the trade waste agreement.
Ms Gorfine said the community no longer had any faith in Defence to follow through on its commitments.
She was incensed that community representatives were told in January 2016 that the Herald’s reports were inaccurate and that the matter would be resolved by the following month.
“Why should the community have any faith in their words?” she said. “Actions speak louder than words.”
The Defence spokesperson said the latest testing on waste in its sewage ponds detected the chemical perfluoroctane sulfonate (PFOS) at 1.3 parts per billion.
“The waste is not currently treated for PFAS where it remains on Defence land,” they said.
“Where Defence removes waste from the site, that waste is treated in accordance with NSW Environment Protection Authority Guidelines.”