It will take the outcome of a court case to guide the federal government's long-term strategy for dealing with PFAS contamination, but Labor has made a pre-election promise to start remediating the Williamtown red zone if elected.
Labor committed on Thursday to spending $20 million to clean up drains in the red zone if it wins the coming state and federal elections.
Port Stephens MP Kate Washington, Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles, NSW deputy opposition leader Penny Sharpe and federal member for Paterson Meryl Swanson announced the funding package at Williamtown Hall.
Ms Washington said the money would be used to remove contaminated sediment from drains that run through residents' properties from Williamtown RAAF Base.
The president of Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group and the national Coalition Against PFAS, Lindsay Clout, welcomed the funding promise and said it had set the "gold standard" for every contaminated site in Australia.
"I think the first steps that need to be taken are the steps that were taken today," Mr Clout said.
"We need to clean up our major source of the contamination, firstly on the base, and secondly the properties off the base which are the main drains.
"What we don't want is for this contamination to spread. We've had three iterations [of the red zone] over the last three years where we're now up to 25 square kilometres.
"If we do nothing, where will be in another three years? Fifty square kilometres?"
The Department of Defence has started work on remediating the RAAF base and limiting run-off to the surrounding area, but no work has been done outside the base.
Mr Clout said he had communicated repeatedly with the office of NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton about 18 months ago to try to have the drains cleared but to no avail.
Both Labor and the Coalition have been under fire for failing to respond to senate inquiry recommendations three months ago that the federal government compensate residents whose property values have plummeted due to high PFAS levels.
I think the litigation is completely central. And the litigation puts a time frame on this.Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles
Mr Clout said compensation was a key issue for residents, but they also wanted to see action on cleaning up the area.
"We've got health issues, we've got people who are trapped because of property price collapses, we've got issues with stock that are grown in the area and being sold on the market.
"Let's protect where we are and clean that mess up, and then if it's seen that it is a very long and difficult process to clean up all of our backyards, then property buy-backs become part of the mix."
PFAS contamination has been found at Defence bases around the country and at fire stations and industrial sites.
In the Hunter, tests have revealed PFAS on former BHP steelworks land at Mayfield, around an industrial site at Georgetown, at the Truegain site at Rutherford and at Hamilton Fire Station.
A class action involving residents at Williamtown and the Queensland town of Oakey against the Department of Defence is set down for the Federal Court in August after mediation stalled late last year.
Mr Marles would not commit Labor to compensating property owners at Thursday's press conference and said the outcome of the class action was central to how the federal government dealt with the problem.
"It is a big and a complex problem, and there's no way of getting around that. And the remedy to it is not going to be overnight," he said.
"You've just got to take this step by step. We've got to be as honest and as transparent as possible with people about how difficult it is and how we manage this going forward.
"In handling that litigation it is really important that it is done quickly and fairly and pragmatically.
"I think the litigation is completely central. And the litigation puts a time frame on this. This matter is due to be heard in August … and a court is going to convene at this time and start considering it."
He said he could not say whether a Labor government would continue to defend itself against the litigation because the party did not have access to legal briefings on the matter.
NSW Labor has committed to ban PFAS chemicals in the state, form a select committee inquiry to establish a PFAS response plan and appoint a PFAS coordinator.
Residents and former firefighters are also calling for a royal commission into the handling of PFAS contamination throughout Australia.