PFAS: Warning to Svensson Heights residents from Williamtown
RESIDENTS in Bundaberg are the latest to find their health and their homes are at risk from what is a growing national environmental crisis, says Lindsay Clout.
Mr Clout is the president of the Fullerton Cove Action Group and a member of the Williamtown Steering Committee co-ordinating a class action against the Department of Defence.
He would like to share his personal experience with the Bundaberg community after it was last week revealed the Svensson Heights water supply was contaminated with PFAS.
"Imagine getting a knock on your front door on a Sunday afternoon that will change your life forever.
The person at your doorstep is from the government.
They are here to tell you your property is now in a 'Red Zone' of environmental contamination.
Globally banned chemicals leaking from a nearby Defence base or local airport have seeped into your soil and water.
They tell you not eat any food grown on your property. You must not drink water from your property.
Also, best your kids do not even jump in a puddle in case water from it enters their mouth.
Your entire family should now also be tested to see if the chemical is in their bloodstream.
For thousands of people in my community this is not some science fiction plot - it is reality.
Since Defence finally got around to telling us in 2015 our lives have been thrown into turmoil.
We live in a Red Zone just out of Newcastle that has been polluted by firefighting chemicals leaking from the nearby Williamtown Air Force Base.
Those same chemicals were also used at local and international airports in Australia.
We are now connected with a growing list of communities across Australia including Oakey, Katherine, Wattle Grove and now Bundaberg in learning that chemicals variously called PFAS or PFOS are putting our health and futures at risk.
What's most depressing is that once again in Bundaberg we see the same old bureaucratic response of information being held back from the communities, a lack of any real communication and a clear 'don't worry too much' spin."
WHAT NOW FOR BUNDY?
Mr Clout tells the NewsMail there are three reasons why the residents of Williamtown recommend the people of Bundaberg don't believe that.
1. The chemicals and their impact on human health have been the subject of major legal settlements in the US.
2. The chemicals do not breakdown in the environment for decades or your bloodstream for up to nine years. "We know from independent testing they are at levels in our community which far exceed any government guideline globally," he says.
3. The Department of Defence knew for at least 20 years the risks of these chemicals and told no one.
"They knew at least two years that they were leaking into the Willliamtown community before they told us," Mr Clout said.
He said Bundaberg joined at least 17 other sites around Australia where people were finding the chemicals are in their soil and water.
"Like us, they may find cancer clusters among their community and banks flatly refusing to lend money on their Red Zone properties because of the risk," he said.
"They will also confront a wall of misinformation or simply none at all.
"If a major corporation was the cause of this contamination would bureaucrats be furiously downplaying the risks to a community?"
Mr Clout asks if government ministers stand on the sidelines and mumble the occasional public comment about "finding a solution".
"To find out your health and that of your children is at serious risk simply because where you live is terrifying," he said.
"What is infuriating being to be played for fools by Defence, bureaucrats and politicians.
"So, ask yourself, if you got that life-changing knock at the door one Sunday afternoon would you simply do nothing?"
Because for the community of Williamtown the answer was, is and will remain no, Mr Clout said.
"We won't be ignored," he said.
"We won't go away.
"And as the environmental disaster that has forever changed our lives grows, neither will the people impacted in Bundaberg and communities around Australia."
PFAS AT WILLIAMTOWN
The NSW Government says PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are a group of manufactured chemicals that have been used as fire retardants since the 1950s, and in a range of common household products and specialty applications across Australia and internationally.
They includes non-stick cookware; fabric, furniture and carpet stain protection applications; food packaging; some industrial processes; and some types of firefighting foam.
Research is still being undertaken globally to understand their long-term effects.
There is no consistent evidence that PFAS is harmful to humans, but because these chemicals take a long time to break down in humans and in the environment, the NSW Government has adopted a precautionary approach to managing PFAS across the state.
The NSW EPA is investigating sites across NSW to better understand the extent of PFAS use and potential contamination.
On September 3 2015, the NSW Government announced that PFAS contamination had been detected both on and offsite at the Department of Defence RAAF Base at Williamtown.
A full environmental investigation by the Department of Defence was initiated, which was conducted to determine the full extent of contamination, and any risks to human health and the environment.
The NSW Government released a map of the Williamtown Investigation Area and precautionary advice for residents to minimise their exposure to PFAS from the RAAF Base.
An expert panel of technical experts in contamination and health was convened, led by NSW Chief Scientist Professor Mary O'Kane AC.
The panel was tasked with exploring the nature and extent of the contamination and recommending next steps.
Two working groups - the Human Health Risk Assessment Group and the Water Working Group - were developed to provide additional expertise and assistance.
The two groups provided technical guidance to the Department of Defence during the investigation, as well as advising the NSW Government on issuing and updating precautionary advice, and re-defining the Investigation Area as new information became available.
A Community Reference Group was also convened to ensure that the residents were provided with ongoing updates and advice to the community during this process.
In August 2016, the Department of Defence released the first Human Health Risk Assessment and Environmental Site Assessment Reports.
The reports were reviewed by the NSW Government and the expert panel, confirming that the precautionary advice, fishing closures and Investigation Area were still appropriate and should remain in place.
Drinking contaminated groundwater was identified as the major exposure pathway, and a number of data gaps were identified.
The NSW EPA requested the Department of Defence to carry out additional testing and sampling.
The Department of Defence released the final HHRA and ESA in December last year, ending the investigations.
The expert panel reviewed the HHRA and recommended some changes to better reflect the level of exposure of residents to the contamination in certain areas. This resulted in updated precautionary advice and the development of a new Williamtown Management Area.
The expert panel continues to work on other PFAS-related sites in NSW.
As the investigation phase is complete, the NSW Government has provided long-term advice to the Williamtown community.
The precautionary advice that was in place since 2015 remains largely unchanged and is tailored for residents depending on location.
The current advice continues to be precautionary in nature because the effects of PFAS are still unclear.
The boundaries of the Investigation Area, now known as the Management Area, comprise of three zones.
This has seen a reduction in some areas and an expansion in other areas including Fullerton Cove and additional streets in Salt Ash. New maps of the areas have been created.