IN DEPTH

Williamtown scandal scuppers Ryan Baker's business loan as Senator James McGrath responds to Senate motion

RED LIGHT: Ryan Baker with his daughter Ociana in the backyard of their Salt Ash home. He is struggling to get a business loan because his house is located in Williamtown's contamination 'red zone'. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
RED LIGHT: Ryan Baker with his daughter Ociana in the backyard of their Salt Ash home. He is struggling to get a business loan because his house is located in Williamtown's contamination 'red zone'. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

A calculated risk, determination and years of hard slog were finally paying off for Ryan Baker. 

The Salt Ash man was only 24 when took a gamble and went into business on his own, establishing Spear and Fish Downunder at Hamilton South. Within 12 months, he had turned enough profit to pay back his business loan. 

From there, the business thrived: “it never went backwards”. This year, when Mr Baker saw an opportunity to take over a competitor’s operation, he was finally in a position to seize it. 

Or so he thought. When Mr Baker approached NAB for what should have been a straightforward business loan of $100,000, his plans began to unravel. He was stunned. 

“My business banker told me that it was pretty unlikely I was going to get a loan because my house is in the red zone,” he said. 

“I said ‘well my business isn’t in the red zone  – how does that affect my business? I’ve got seven years trading history.’”

RED LIGHT: Ryan Baker with his daughter Ociana in the backyard of their Salt Ash home. He is struggling to get a business loan because his house is located in Williamtown's contamination 'red zone'. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

RED LIGHT: Ryan Baker with his daughter Ociana in the backyard of their Salt Ash home. He is struggling to get a business loan because his house is located in Williamtown's contamination 'red zone'. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

A NAB spokesperson wouldn’t comment on Mr Baker’s specific case, but said it was supporting existing customers in Williamtown on “a case-by-case basis”. 

“NAB is committed to being a responsible lender and we regularly and prudently review our business lending policies,” she said. “We consider a range of factors, including a potential borrower’s capacity to repay and size, type, tenor and complexity of a transaction being considered.” 

Mr Baker’s home is located in Salt Ash, at the northern end of a swathe of land contaminated by the toxic per- and poly-fluoralkyl [PFAS] chemicals that continue to seep from the Williamtown RAAF base. 

The financial consequences of the 2015 contamination announcement were immediate and devastating. Property values plunged and banks placed a freeze on lending, leaving residents virtually trapped on their poisoned properties.  

At the end of last year, Labor and the Greens demanded the Turnbull government spell out its position on compensation. 

The parties steered a motion through the Senate, calling on the federal government to explain what consideration had been given to “understanding and addressing any financial impacts on affected businesses and individuals”. 

The answer was finally tabled on Tuesday – one day after the deadline – by Liberal Senator James McGrath, the head of the government’s PFAS taskforce. 

In a two-page response, Senator McGrath argued the government had “invested heavily in a wide range of activities to address PFAS contamination, its impacts and to better understand the potential health effects.” 

He detailed $88 million in government spending for remediation, research and an epidemiological study, as well as counselling services and blood testing for residents. 

Senator McGrath’s statement pointed out the government had developed plans to manage the issue nationally, invested in water treatment plants, provided alternative water supplies and established safe drinking water standards. 

But only one line appeared to address the question of compensation, with Senator McGrath stating that “the government is investigating a range of community assistance options”. 

He added that the PFAS taskforce was in talks with the banks, and had “highlighted the lack of consistent scientific evidence of adverse human health effects from PFAS exposure”.

He said the information would help to “inform business decisions”.  

As news of the statement trickled back to Williamtown, the law firm leading a class action against Defence was inundated with calls from distressed residents. 

Ben Allen, a partner at Dentons, blasted Senator McGrath’s statement as “completely inadequate”. 

“The complete lack of any proposal for compensation underlines why the Williamtown community sees no option but to continue to pursue their legal action and to ask the court to provide an outcome,” he said. 

Senator McGrath’s statement was condemned by Labor and the Greens, while Lindsay Clout of the Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group was aghast the government appeared to be leaning on the banks to deliver a resolution.

“Senator McGrath has a hide to be going in and telling the banks everything is alright,” he said. “Then those guys are looking at your newspaper and seeing 50 cancer cases on a four-kilometre stretch.”

It was unclear whether the banks were made aware of the position of the US EPA, which analysed all available scientific evidence in 2016 and concluded the chemicals were a human health hazard.

Studies by Harvard University scientists have found the chemicals can suppress the immune system, while an epidemiological study of 70,000 US residents found a probable link with six different diseases

Mr Clout took exception to Senator McGrath’s claim that Australia’s response to the contamination has been “world leading”, when it has not ratified a global agreement  – made nine years ago – to phase out the chemicals, despite 171 other countries having done so. 

“Unless Senator McGrath can table one independent and reputable national or international medical professional to back his “leading the world” claim, he should apologise to the Senate,” Mr Clout said. 

Paterson MP Meryl Swanson delivered an impassioned speech to parliament, labelling Senator McGrath’s statement as “a piece of spin”. 

“The government rattled through a list of things it has spent $100 million on ... but conveniently neglected to address the fact that there are hundreds of people trapped in contaminated land,” she said. “The federal government must act now to create choices and options for those who are caught up in this diabolical mess.” 

Mr Baker is now contemplating selling off his assets to fund the business takeover. He ridiculed suggestions the Turnbull government could pressure the banks into lending again. 

“This is the second time it’s [the contamination] stopped me from an opportunity to get ahead in life,” he said. “We’ve got no sense of direction.” 

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