THE Department of Defence repeatedly withheld damning information about the contamination threat posed by Williamtown RAAF base during its bid to have more than $1 billion worth of upgrade works approved.
Documents obtained by the Newcastle Herald reveal Defence failed to disclose the chemical threat to three separate inquiries undertaken since 2014 by Federal Parliament’s standing committee on public works.
It was also left out of the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the F-35A Joint Strike Fighters to be based at Williamtown from 2018.
The federal Department of Environment approved the introduction of the jets in July and the contamination was made public in September.
Toxic chemicals from the old fire-fighting foam were detected in surface and groundwater on and off the base in 2012.
Federal Newcastle MP and public works standing committee member Sharon Claydon said Defence ‘‘absolutely’’ had an obligation to disclose the contamination spread.
She said it was crucial given the committee’s job of deliberating on the nationally-significant upgrade projects, worth more than $1.5 billion, for the introduction of the jets across numerous sites.
‘‘The committee is relying upon the evidence put before it and assuming that is in good faith,’’ she said. ‘‘When you find out otherwise there are questions to be asked.’’
Public works worth more than $15 million must be referred to the standing committee.
In all three inquiries, the contamination was not detailed in Defence’s lengthy submissions, instead glossed over in one line.
Ms Claydon said she felt ‘‘extreme disappointment’’ at the ‘‘very cursory reference’’.
‘‘That clearly needs to be front and centre of considerations of all contemporary and future works [at the base],’’ she said.
The NSW Environment Protection Authority, which has no power over Defence land, said plans to install a 10,000 litre underground diesel tank at Williamtown was of ‘‘particular interest’’.
An EPA spokeswoman confirmed it was ‘‘aware” of the potential for the works to cause “further offsite impacts’’ and had ‘‘requested’’ an inspection. Defence staff will be grilled about the contamination at another standing committee hearing in Canberra on Friday.
Former Williamtown base commander John Donahoo said Defence's silence in the strike fighter EIS about the chemical spread amounted to "trying to pull the wool over the community's eyes".
A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment said the flying operations of the jets would have no impact on water.
Concerns aired over JSF upgrade works
RESIDENTS want major upgrade works at Williamtown RAAF Base stopped until the contamination threat is “properly examined”.
Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group head Cain Gorfine said major earthworks were taking place on a heavily contaminated site, which was a serious concern for neighbours.
“They are digging right in the heart of the contamination zone and there is no regulatory body overseeing it,” he said.
“We have no confidence that Defence, as the polluter, is doing the right thing.”
Detailed Defence submissions to three inquiries held by Federal Parliament’s standing committee on public works reveal the contamination was revealed as a one-line item on each occasion.
The first inquiry, held in 2014, examined the proposed facilities for the new Joint Strike Fighter jets.
It was told that ‘‘low levels of sub-surface contaminants have been identified in the area of the proposed F-35A Operational Precinct’’.
The second inquiry, which endorsed a $274 million upgrade at Williamtown, was advised that changes to stormwater drains would provide ‘‘environmental best practice in relation to... Aqueous Film Forming Foam discharge management’’.
The third and current inquiry, into a $409 million upgrade of air traffic systems and infrastructure at multiple bases, was told in September of ‘‘potential contamination’’ from the foam at RAAF bases Darwin, Townsville, Amberley, Williamtown, Pearce, at RAAF Gingin and the Army Aviation Centre at Oakey.
This advice was given the same month NSW agencies banned recreation and commercial fishing at Tilligerry Creek and Fullerton Cove and warned residents living near the base to stop drinking bore water.