Former Newcastle fireman and cancer survivor Geoff Zipper is calling for a royal commission into PFAS contamination, and he has some allies in affected communities around the country.
Mr Zipper, who worked at fire stations in Newcastle for 36 years before retiring in 2006 with bladder cancer, told the Newcastle Herald in January how children used to play in toxic firefighting foam at staff Christmas parties as though it was snow.
He said he was alarmed at a Herald report about PFAS chemicals being found in the soil and groundwater at the former Hamilton fire station and described how three of his close colleagues had suffered kidney, bladder and prostate cancers.
Now he is calling for a Commonwealth royal commission into what he labelled a “cover-up” by various levels of government into the effects of the chemicals.
The Morrison government and the federal opposition have not officially responded to recommendations made in December by a Senate inquiry into the management of the chemicals.
The inquiry called for compensation for people whose property values have plummeted due to high PFAS levels; banning the toxins; and appointing a coordinator-general to oversee a national action plan. The Coalition government has refused to provide compensation to property owners.
Mr Zipper said the government had been “mute” since the inquiry and described the handling of the issue as a “conspiracy”.
“They were dragged kicking and screaming for a banking royal commission, and that only involved people and their money; this involves people’s lives,” he said. “It’s far more serious. I’m disgusted. I really think there should be a royal commission. There’s nothing been done about it.
“The EPA – they’re all in collusion. The government controls what comes out of these places. There’s a conspiracy going on. Maybe I’m cynical, but it looks very suspicious that nothing is being done.
“If it was you or I who was polluting, we’d be locked up.”
The president of Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group and the national Coalition Against PFAS, Lindsay Clout, said his group had been talking to other affected communities about when to launch a public campaign for a royal commission into “Defence’s activities” and welcomed Mr Zipper’s support.
“We need to ferret out the people accountable,” he said.
Mr Clout said communities were weighing up the best time to launch the campaign in light of impending class actions against the Department of Defence and whatever the government’s response to the Senate inquiry might be.
He said a class action involving residents at Williamtown and the Queensland town of Oakey appeared set for the Federal Court in August after mediation “stalled” late last year.
“It’s a big issue and a long game,” Mr Clout said.
He said the “main driver” of a royal commission would be to investigate corruption.
Australia is one of few countries in the world not to have banned PFOS, one of the per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS).
Mr Zipper said the government needed to be forced to answer questions about why Australia’s PFAS standards were lower.
The Fullerton Grove residents group has also called on Labor to announce before the state and federal elections its policies on dealing with PFAS contamination.
Mr Zipper plans to walk the Kokoda Track in April to bring attention to the issue.