More than two years after the Newcastle Herald broke news of serious contamination at Williamtown, a NSW Environment Minister has visited the Hunter to speak with desperate residents.
Gabrielle Upton, who has held the environment portfolio since January, met with six Williamtown residents in Newcastle on Monday “to have the opportunity to hear from them personally” and ask them what the state government could do better.
But the opposition has criticised her for not meeting with more people affected by PFAS contamination from the Williamtown RAAF Base – and for not making the meeting public.
Further connections to town water and “planning” were among the practical measures that Ms Upton said the state would continue to pursue.
When asked whether a meeting between the minister and residents could have been held sooner, she replied: “we can always have more meetings”.
“I was concerned to come down here in an environment where I could hear genuinely from them, in good will, out of the glare of publicity,” she said. “There is more to do – there is no question about that. It’s a very difficult and frustrating position they find themselves in. Part of what I wanted to do was have them understand that I hear and understand their frustration.”
Ms Upton said the state was in a dialogue with the federal department of Defence over the contamination issue. She told reporters that she had written to federal Defence Minister Marise Payne, after NSW Parliament passed a motion last month to press Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to find a solution for Red Zone residents.
“The federal government, through Defence, is the polluter of Williamtown and the surrounding communities,” she said.
“But the state government is determined to be there to assist the communities in very practical ways – at the same time [be] with the communities taking the fight up to the federal government, for the government to step up and assist these communities as well.”
Port Stephens MP Kate Washington welcomed Ms Upton’s visit, but criticised her for only meeting with a “handful” of residents behind closed doors. Ms Washington said she was not allowed to attend the meeting.
“At long last she is meeting with some community members, in Newcastle, but I know that the community would have preferred a public meeting,” she said.
“If we are going to get a satisfactory result for the affected residents, there desperately needs to be more cooperation by the Berejiklian government with the local community and their elected representatives.”