WILLIAMTOWN red zone residents have been issued with overdue notices – and at least one chased by a debt collector - for water bills the Department of Defence promised to pay.
Defence has repeatedly failed on its promise, made late last year, to pay the water bills for hundreds of households in the Williamtown RAAF Base contamination zone after residents were forced to abandon use of their toxic bores.
In the past week, furious residents stranded in the red zone have been issued with Hunter Water reminder notices for bills Defence was meant to pay in March and new bills for the latest quarter.
The reminder notices warn residents that their bills are “now overdue” and the balance has “starting attracting compound interest charges of 5.50% per annum”.
One red zone resident was contacted by a debt collector chasing payment for an overdue water bill.
In one of the only wins for residents in their David and Goliath battle with Defence over the spread of toxic fire-fighting foam chemicals from the base, Defence agreed late last year to bankroll three years of unlimited water supply for all properties connected to town water since December 2015.
Several months later, an estimated 30 per cent of properties already connected to town water – including in the worst affected area known as the primary management zone – were offered the same assistance.
But the bills have not been paid.
There are 750 households in the red zone.
President of the Fullerton Cove Residents' Action Group Lindsay Clout said Defence’s failure to pay the bills was just another example of the residents’ needs being ignored.
“That’s how far out of step this whole process is, they’ve not only sent us a bill, but now they’re chasing us with reminder notices,” he said.
“We are the ones who are polluted, who can’t use our normal water supply, but from their perspective it’s like we don’t even count.
“It’s not good enough, we’ve been fighting this type of thing right from the beginning. They just don’t care.”
The Newcastle Herald reported earlier this year that some residents were facing skyrocketing water bills, as a result of not being allowed to use ground, bore or surface water on their rural properties.
Hunter Water’s spokeswoman said the authority was required to issue residents with a copy of their water bill “for their personal records”.
She said all red zone residents “should have” received a letter with their first bill informing them why they were receiving a copy of the bill. If they didn’t, she urged residents to contact Hunter Water.
The spokeswoman said while residents were not responsible for paying their bills, Hunter Water would continue to issue bills so customers understood usage patterns.
“To be clear, there is no expectation of payment by these customers, as the Department of Defence has committed to paying their water bills for three years,” she said.
“We are confident this commitment will be honoured. Hunter Water will not pursue collection of payment for any customer in the Williamtown Management Area for the duration of this commitment.”
Port Stephens MP Kate Washington described Defence’s treatment of residents as “woeful” and “extraordinary”.
“Yet again Defence has let this community down and failed to learn from their misdeeds of the past,” she said.
“It’s so wrong to be putting residents in that situation where they are receiving accounts like that. It’s not Hunter Water’s fault, Defence has been woeful from the beginning and it just continues three years on.”
Mr Clout said it was left to residents to chase Defence to force them to keep their commitment.
“We understand the bills have not been paid as far back as March and Defence has said they have employed someone to sort it out,” he said.
“It would have been nice if residents got an explanatory letter attached to the bills explaining that they don’t have to be paid.”
Hunter Water’s spokeswoman said the authority aimed to address and rectify any issues in a timely and efficient manner.
“Hunter Water has an agreement with customers to provide a copy of their water bill to Defence for payment,” she said.
“As part of this, each customer is required to complete some basic paperwork to give permission for Defence to receive their bill and usage information. Without this paperwork, Hunter Water is legally unable to provide a copy for payment.”
A Defence spokesman said it was working with Hunter Water to establish a payment system which meets the needs of both organisations.