On a winter’s day in 2016, 60-year-old Anita Bugges packed up her dream home on Nelson Bay Road, Williamtown, and headed south.
As she drove away, she looked out over the 25-acre farm she bought ten years before for $899,000 and breathed a sigh of relief.
From the moment she received a flier in her letterbox from the Department of Defence, nine months earlier, informing her toxic chemicals were leaching off Williamtown RAAF Base 5km up the road, her life changed forever.
She stopped eating homegrown vegies, wouldn’t let her young grandson play in the mud anymore and she worried constantly.
Several months later, when news of a landmark US EPA report found in May 2016 that dust was an important exposure pathway for children, who could also ingest the chemicals through hand-to-mouth contact, she began plotting a course of action to get her family off the land.
Unable to rent the property because of the contamination, she became the first Williamtown resident to default on her mortgage payments and walk away from the red zone.
But now Ms Bugges is fighting to stave off foreclosure after learning that if the Commonwealth Bank takes possession of her property it rules her out of a residents’ class action law suit seeking compensation from the Department of Defence to claw back huge falls in property values.
Adding insult to injury, legal advice she has received indicates that if the bank forecloses and sells her property for less than what it is owed, the bank could claim an economic loss and be eligible for joining the class action.
Ms Bugges, a single parent who worked for 40 years to save for the farm, would walk away with nothing but debt.
“Absolutely nothing about this whole mess has been fair from the beginning,” she said.
“They are basically saying if I don’t own the property I can’t claim an economic loss so can’t be part of the class action.
“I would dearly like the bank not to foreclose and give me a moratorium on the mounting interest so I can keep the place until the class action settles and then I would have some money to pay them.
“It would also allow me to have something to leave my children. If it wasn’t for Defence poisoning my land I would still be living here, none of this would be happening.”
The Commonwealth Bank issued a foreclosure notice on the property in July after Ms Bugges fell behind on the mortgage.
The debt, largely due to almost 20 per cent interest on arrears, has spiralled after Ms Bugges and her family, fled the red zone and were forced to rent.
Ms Bugges has owned property since the age of 23, and was living at Williamtown with her daughter Michaela and six-year-old grandson Tristan.
“It was the death of a dream, but I don’t regret leaving for one moment,” Ms Bugges said.
“The financial hardship has been massive, but I needed to make sure my grandson was safe and away from the contamination. There is no way we could risk his health.”
Ms Bugges has done what so many other red zone residents wish they could do. She got out.
There has been no exodus but the reason is not that residents all want to stay.
Many are trapped. They are unable to realise their assets in a depressed property market due to the contamination and can’t find tenants willing to rent in the area.
Ms Bugges bought the farm in 2007, well after Defence was aware of the contamination.
The family had built the property with 19 stables into a small horse business. They never missed a payment on the loan.
Ms Bugess said she had lost more than $50,000 in the past two years because she could not find anyone willing to rent the property.
She described the financial stress as “extreme”.
“Due to the high interest payments on arrears the debt has gone through the roof,” she said.
“I would dearly love for us to find a way to stop the foreclosure so I can stay in the class action and have a chance to salvage something.”
A class action against the Department of Defence by residents whose lives have been ‘devastated’ by firefighting contamination from the Williamtown RAAF Base got the green light in August 2016, with funding locked in after a target of over 300 sign-ups was achieved.
Litigation funder IMF Bentham agreed to bankroll the case on the condition a critical mass of residents signed up.
The class action will be run by international firm Dentons, led by partners John Dalzell and Ben Allen.
A trial date of late 2019 has been set down for class actions over firefighting contamination that has tainted hundreds of properties surrounding Defence bases at Williamtown and Oakey.
Defence told the Federal Court of Australia in March last year that it rejects allegations it breached federal environmental legislation and its duty of care to residents around the Williamtown by polluting land with toxic firefighting chemicals.
It’s 42-page defence also indicates the Department may be prepared to take the case to trial.
Justice Jayne Jagot ordered both parties to look at an out-of-court mediation when the matter first went before court in November 2016. Mediation is set down for later this year.
The outcome of the case is expected to be closely watched by communities across the country where contamination from the perfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals – historically used in firefighting foam – has been discovered.
A type of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) called ‘Light Water’, manufactured by US company 3M, was used at the base in Williamtown from the 1970s.
Ms Bugges said she held out “no hope” the Australian government would “do the right thing” and buy out affected properties.
“I knew from the beginning the government would whitewash this whole issue,” she said.
“Both sides of politics have shown they don’t care, it doesn’t matter who is in power. The only hope we have for any outcome is the class action.”
Following questions by the Newcastle Herald late last week, a spokeswoman for the Commonwealth Bank confirmed it would halt foreclosure action.
The banks spokeswoman said it would continue to work with Ms Bugges and “discuss with her the options available in relation to her loan”.
“We understand the challenges faced by some of our customers in areas affected by contamination near the Williamtown RAAF Base,” she said.
“Commonwealth Bank is committed to assisting our customers on a case-by-case basis, and work through any hurdles that may arise in meeting their obligations.”