National coalition launches for residents of Australia's 90 toxic sites

Fullerton Cove resident Lindsay Clout is the president of the country's new PFAS coalition. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers
Fullerton Cove resident Lindsay Clout is the president of the country's new PFAS coalition. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

A nationwide coalition will be launched today to advocate on behalf of dozens of communities in Australia grappling with the devastating fallout of toxic firefighting contamination.

The Coalition Against PFAS (CAP) will work to link residents in at least 90 contaminated areas across the country, with its foundation members a group of residents involved in class action lawsuits at Williamtown in New South Wales, Katherine in the Northern Territory and Oakey in Queensland.

In all three towns, land and drinking water has been tainted with toxic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS), manufactured historically by chemical giant 3M and used for decades in fire retardants at Australian military bases and fire stations.

The coalition’s president, Lindsay Clout, is from one of about 750 households caught in a plume of toxic contamination enveloping the Williamtown RAAF base, near Newcastle.

The aim, he said, was to create a unified national voice that could force the government to clean up contaminated sites and compensate people for depressed property values and business losses.

“While the United States has declared cleaning up PFAS contamination a 'national priority' and European countries move towards stating there is no safe level of exposure, our government has sat on its hands,” Mr Clout said.

Communities that were newly discovering the contamination were often isolated and needed clear information amid a mass of contradictory messages, he said.

“Because of the difficulty and complexity people are not getting the information they want ... that’s the real issue here,” he said.

“Often we are the first point of contact for young mothers, the elderly and other community members seeking advice on how to protect their homes and families.”

It’s understood the coalition is in talks with a similar grassroots organisation in the United States about opportunities for international co-operation.

Australia is one of the only countries in the world not to have banned PFOS, arguably the most toxic chemical in the PFAS family, and the Department of Defence is aggressively defending several class action lawsuits for pollution stemming from its bases.

The coalition’s launch comes after a Fairfax Media investigation exposed a wave of cancers at a United States high school where the drinking water was contaminated with PFAS, and an alleged campaign over decades by 3M to hide the health dangers of the toxins.

The series highlighted at least 90 sites across Australia where PFAS contamination is being investigated, including 25 in NSW and 10 in Sydney.

 Almost 100 sites across the country have been identified as potential PFAS hot spots. Photo: Shutterstock

Almost 100 sites across the country have been identified as potential PFAS hot spots. Photo: Shutterstock

The chemicals have been linked to suppression of the immune system, hormonal disruption and some forms of cancer, but the Department of Health maintains there is no conclusive evidence they cause "important" health effects.

Among the coalition’s representatives are Dianne Priddle and David Jefferis, who run a cattle stud near the town of Oakey in the Darling Downs.

The contamination has been a “terribly heavy” burden for the couple, in their 60s. They have lost their asset base and have been forced to abandon the groundwater bores they used for irrigation.

“We feel it as producers ourselves, and then we feel it again as it’s our business and then because it’s our home. So we feel it three times over,” Ms Priddle said

“Every year this has gone on, the financial impact is greater and greater.

“The human cost has not come to the front of this, they’re worrying about everything else except human lives … it seems to have been lost by all sides of politics.”

Litigation funder IMF Bentham, which has contributed funds towards the new coalition's website, is bankrolling the class actions at Williamtown, Oakey and Katherine.

Multinational firm Dentons is running the Williamtown lawsuit, while personal injury specialists Shine Lawyers are prosecuting the action in Oakey.

Fairfax Media understands Shine will file its suit in Katherine in the coming weeks, and is canvassing potential actions in Wodonga and Darwin.

Shine Lawyers special counsel Joshua Aylward said hundreds of people from towns and cities around Australia had registered interest in pursuing legal action over the chemicals.

“Just as with asbestos in 2003, the Commonwealth should ban the importation and manufacturing of this chemical, and place tighter controls around remediation of sites contaminated with PFAS,” he said.

“The evidence around 3M’s conduct and cover up is only just beginning to come to light. The real concern in Australia is what science the Commonwealth is relying on, and the veracity with which they are reviewing the scientific literature.

“What we see [is] that the ‘acceptable’ levels of PFAS in Australia are at odds with the rest of the western world, despite the plethora of science now available.”

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