People, not politics, must be PFAS priority

RED ZONE ACTION: All levels of government must work together to address the issues affecting residents at Williamtown, the author says.
RED ZONE ACTION: All levels of government must work together to address the issues affecting residents at Williamtown, the author says.

The Turnbull government’s federal budget allocation of $73.1million to support those affected by PFAS contamination demands further scrutiny.  Of these funds, $55.2million will be spent across five years to give people access to safe drinking water. This is necessary because, around the country, bores are contaminated, tanks have been permeated with PFAS and groundwater is tainted. Chemicals are leaching into the soil, water and bodies of people who live near Defence facilities such as RAAF Base Williamtown, which is the eye of the plume that has destroyed the lives of so many in our community.

For more than two years, many in Williamtown, Salt Ash and Fullerton Cove fought for government help to access safe drinking water. Early this year this was finally addressed, and those in the Williamtown investigation zones are now eligible for reticulated water connection or access to bottled water.

The government's budget announcement of a $55.2 million drinking water program is a national iteration of this program. There’s nothing new here for Williamtown.  The other $17.9million is going to the government's Department of the Environment and Energy to address PFAS contamination, environmental protection and human exposure, nationwide. This is essential work. But this government has already spent more than $100million on PFAS and, to date, not one shred of remediation work has taken place off the RAAF Base Williamtown. Not one cent has been spent creating choices for those trapped on contaminated land in Fullerton Cove, Salt Ash and Williamtown.

On Monday, the eve of the federal budget, Health Minister Greg Hunt quietly dropped the long-awaited report from the Expert Health Panel for PFAS. I am angered by the timing and method of its release, and concerned by the contents of the report. This report quietly went live, two months late, on an obscure website at arguably the busiest time of the Parliamentary year.

The report’s summary advises that “…important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out …”, but also that “… evidence does not support any specific health or disease screening or other health interventions for highly exposed groups in Australia, except for research purposes”. This is despite the fact the report acknowledges “… a possible link with an increased risk of two uncommon cancers: testicular and kidney cancer”.

We’ve been told that there is no cancer cluster in Williamtown, in part because the types of cancer experienced by residents have been so varied. We also know that, in one major study, the cohort examined was statistically meaningless. Yet the expert panel’s assessment of evidence acknowledged there was a relationship between PFAS exposure and some indicators of immune responses. 

The Department of Defence must be held accountable for the damage inflicted on this community. But, equally, we want to mend the disconnect between Defence and parts of our community. The men and women who now serve our country on RAAF Base Williamtown were not part of the decisions that haunt us now. The base has the potential to encourage a world-class hub for aerotechnology that will benefit the electorate. There is great potential, but to embrace it as a community we must rebuild trust.

Local, state and federal governments must work together to address the issues that affect people trapped in this situation through no fault of their own.

Meryl Swanson, Federal Member for Paterson