Newcastle:Williamtown RAAF Base water contamination scandal opens a new front


Williamtown RAAF Base water contamination scandal opens a new front with a stand-off between Hunter Water and the Department of Defence over a $7.5 million sewer pipe to nowhere.

THE Department of Defence has spent $7.5 million of taxpayer funds on a sewer pipe to nowhere and opened a new front on the Williamtown RAAF Base water contamination scandal.

The completed pipe has sat idle for a year because of Defence’s refusal to sign a Hunter Water trade waste agreement requiring testing of sewage put into the system, and acceptance of liability by Defence for any downstream damage caused by Defence contaminants.

Details of Defence’s stand-off with Hunter Water comes less than two weeks after Defence stunned a Senate inquiry by saying it was “too early for a formal acceptance of liability” for ground and surface water contamination at Williamtown base. The contamination scandal has left residents worried for their health, fishermen without a livelihood and hundreds of properties virtually worthless.

The stand-off with Hunter Water is despite Defence forging ahead with a $900 million redevelopment of the base related to the introduction of 72 F35-A Strike Fighter Jets from 2019, including housing for nearly 400 staff. Defence currently relies on an outdated and inadequate on-site sewer pumping system that has left a neighbouring, privately-owned piece of land contaminated and requiring remediation of contaminants including perfluorooctane sulfate (PFOS).

Hunter Water interim chief executive officer Jeremy Bath said the Department of Defence was the first, and only, customer that had ever refused to sign a trade waste agreement because of the liability clause.

“We were shocked. We were stunned. They have refused to do what every single sewer customer has done, which is sign a trade waste agreement accepting liability for what they put in the system,” Mr Bath said.

“We’re not asking anything of Defence that we haven’t asked of every other customer.

“It’s a clause that hospitals, local shopping centres, even the Sanitarium factory at Cooranbong all accept so they can discharge to our sewer system. Defence will not be treated any differently.”

The clause states that Hunter Water’s losses “will be determined in accordance with general common law principles”, if Defence breaches the conditions of the trade waste agreement by introducing contaminants to the sewer outside the conditions of the agreement.

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Defence spent $7.5 million as its contribution to the capital cost of detouring the pipe to the Williamtown base to connect to the sewer.

Mr Bath said Hunter Water had repeatedly tried to negotiate an agreement with Defence because of the need for an appropriate sewer system at Williamtown base, and the more than $7 million of public funds expended on the pipe.

“We offered to allow them to sign up for six months, and any material put into the system would be tested. Defence said it wouldn’t make that commitment,” Mr Bath said.

The issue of liability was non-negotiable for Hunter Water because “without it, we take on an unknown commitment in the event of contaminants entering the system”, Mr Bath said.

“We have done everything possible to reach an agreement, but Defence are a very stubborn government organisation.”

Mr Bath said he proposed in September, within days of the Williamtown base water contamination scandal being made public, that Defence pay for town water for nearly 200 affected Salt Ash residents.

He proposed it during a discussion with a senior Defence representative, saying it was “not only the right thing to do, but it also addressed the issue of public health”.

“It was turned down. They were concerned about the precedent it would create nationally,” Mr Bath said.

NSW Premier Mike Baird announced in December that the NSW Government would pay the estimated $4 million cost of the work, and seek reimbursement from Defence.

A Defence spokesperson said it was working with Hunter Water to connect the base to Hunter Water’s Waste Water Transfer Scheme after a capital contribution of $7.5 million in June 2013.

It expected to reach a final agreement in early 2016, the spokesperson said.

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