IN the heat and wind the daily job of sweeping the Williamtown RAAF Base runway has always been an “impossible task”.
If the sweeper was unable to clear the dust and foreign objects, traditionally there was one solution.
“You would just go to the fire station and find any random firie you saw, it was so normal and they were all so used to doing it, and ask them to come out with the foam,” a former RAAF member said.
“Sometimes they would send one truck, sometimes three.”
RAAF fire trucks would roar across the tarmac spraying their toxic cargo as far as they could.
Firefighting foam containing dangerous per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS) would drench the runway, the grass and anything in the vicinity.
It was an easy solution.
“It would congeal the dust so you could run down with the sweeper,” the former member, who served at Williamtown in the early and mid 2000s, said.
“If you didn't do that, you would just be moving the dust around.
“The runway got swept everyday no matter what and using foam to do the job was extremely common. No one every told any of us it was dangerous.”
As the Department of Defence and Williamtown 'red zone' residents continue out-of-court mediation this month as part of a class action lawsuit brought over firefighting foam chemical contamination leaching from the base, former RAAF members and contractors have detailed decades of “excessive” and “indiscriminate” use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) at the base.
‘Light Water’ foam, manufactured by US company 3M, was used in fire trucks at Williamtown from the 1970s until 2004.
A Defence spokesman said the foam was used to protect human life and assets from fires and a Defence-commissioned report into its historical use at Williamtown uncovered no reports it was used inappropriately.
“There were no reported recollections by the personnel interviewed of the spent AFFF concentrate being used for non-fire related purposes,” the report reads.
But several former RAAF personnel described the finding as “rubbish”.
Another former RAAF worker, who served at Williamtown in the 2000s, said Defence used the product “for just about anything”.
“We used to use it to clean stuff with all the time,” he said. “If there was a spill we would just pour it on straight. It was a good cleaning product because it was so soapy. They never told us there were any concerns about it, even when they stopped using it and changed to another product.”
According to one of the workers, sweeping the runway was done by a civilian contractor at night when there was hardly anyone around, but always under the supervision of Defence personnel.
“I’m not sure how many people saw it going on because it was the early hours of the morning,” he said.
“But there were times when the foam would be used every day for weeks on the runway. It all depended on the weather. The foam attracted the dirt and made it easier to pick up.”
According to Defence’s Foreign Object Control procedure document, damage can be caused to engines, propellers and helicopter rotors, by ground debris and other loose matter being thrown up during engine running, taxying and hovering.
The damage is known as Foreign Object Damage (FOD), and the acronym is used as a general term to describe all ground debris and loose matter.
“To minimise the potential risk of damage, great care is to be exercised in keeping runways, taxiways, hard stands, flight decks and all work areas clear of loose matter,” the document states.
One of the former RAAF workers said the Williamtown runway was swept “every night, without fail”. He said there was “absolutely no way” the foam was only used for firefighting and training.
Former RAAF firie Bob Ingle told the Newcastle Herald in October 2015, a month after news of the PFAS contamination was made public, that the foam was used at the base as a dust suppressant.
Mr Ingle, of Karuah, who died of cancer in November 2015, said authorities had “no idea” of the scale of chemicals poured on the ground at Williamtown.
‘‘The firefighting foam was sprayed everywhere and it was just left where it would fall," he said. “It was always dusty and if a helicopter was going to land we would run the product underneath to bind the dirt. We used to put it everywhere.”
Former workers said when the fire suppressant systems in the hangars were tested, the foam was simply hosed out.
“The foam would fill the hangar from top to bottom, we used to run through it and make tunnels and snow angels, we'd be coated in it,” a worker said.
“Then they just washed it out the door. The water table where those hangars are is only knee deep. You can’t blame the workers or the firies, we just didn’t know.”
Paul de Groot workered as a contractor at the air base for several years and saw the foam used “excessively”. ‘‘Pretty much everyday we would see the guys using the foam,’’ he said.
‘‘After the fighter jets landed or took off they would roar out in their trucks and empty the stuff everywhere. When I asked what was going on they said it was used as a dust suppressant.”
The Coalition Against PFAS president Lindsay Clout said residents had heard “so many stories like this”.
“Many people have heard that the foam was used in a variety of ways that had nothing to do with fires,” he said.
“I would fully expect Defence to deny it.”
In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the federal government’s handling of the contamination, Dentons Australia lawyers, representing more than 400 ‘red zone’ residents and business owners in the class action, said its clients wanted to be in the same position they were in before the contamination occurred.
The lawyers are arguing Defence breached a duty of care in ensuring its activities at the base did not cause damage to nearby residential properties.
Residents and businesses were in a “position of vulnerability” because they did not know about the use of the foam and had no control over it, a statement of claim lodged in late 2017 said.
Defence has been accused of continuing to use the firefighting foam for more than a decade after it was informed the chemicals were persistent in the environment and potentially hazardous to human and animal health.
But Defence lawyers deny the allegations.
If mediation is unsuccessful the case is due back in court next year. Litigation funder IMF Bentham is bankrolling class actions at Williamtown, Oakey, in Queensland, and Katherine, in the Northern Territory.
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