Canberra must move on Williamtown PFAS contamination

Tuesday's Williamtown hearing
Tuesday's Williamtown hearing

IT will be three years in September since the residents of Williamtown’s “red zone” were propelled into the centre of one of the worst contamination problems that this country has seen.

Over this time, the controversy over the potentially carcinogenic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances used for decades in firefighting foams has grown, both in its physical scope and its implications.

It is now officially accepted that PFAS chemical contamination can be found at virtually every airbase in the nation. And not only airbases. Just this week, the Department of Defence announced that an environmental review would be needed at the Singleton army base, with a community information session to be held in Singleton on Friday. Indeed, the deployment of these chemicals has been so widespread for a range of reasons that experts now say that PFAS exposure, if only at very low levels, is almost endemic.

But even if PFAS contamination has become an issue in a range of locations, Williamtown remains the epicentre of a situation that has trapped its victims on a range of levels.

At a public hearing on Tuesday at Williamtown, federal parliamentarians saw and heard the human impact close-up.

With Defence acknowledging that PFAS chemicals were still leaching from the base, residents lined up to tell the MPs on the Defence joint standing committee that they felt betrayed, abandoned, frightened and fed up. With their health under a cloud, and their financial situations ruined thanks to the PFAS-created collapse in property prices, few of those involved are able to leave what has effectively become an unwalled prison.

The federal government is clinging to a report that says there is very little if any evidence to link PFAS exposure to human disease, but this is no assurance for those who are trapped in the red zone through no fault of their own.

No one can change what has happened but we can impact on the future. The only decent thing that Defence and the Commonwealth can do is to buy out those who want to leave at pre-PFAS market rates – at least – and to remediate the area as best as possible. As a nation we are spending tens of billions of dollars on new planes and warships. The least we can do is spend a fraction of this amount to alleviate the impact on the defence department’s accidental victims.

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