GREENS Senator Lee Rhiannon has questioned Department of Defence silence about the health of Williamtown RAAF Base personnel in the wake of a water contamination scandal, as a Senate inquiry looks set to recommend acquisition of affected properties around the base.
Ms Rhiannon said she was concerned about the “lack of commentary” from Defence about its personnel after evidence of the widespread and largely unfettered use of contaminated fire fighting foam at Defence sites across the country for decades.
“We’re worried about people in areas around Williamtown RAAF Base but what about people working at the base?” Ms Rhiannon said, after receiving disturbing reports about Defence firefighters having direct contact with the firefighting foam containing perfluorooctane sulfate (PFOS) over years.
“I was concerned at the inquiry about the lack of commentary from Defence about the health of their own people. They’re on the frontline with this,” she said.
A Senate inquiry that sat in Canberra and Newcastle in December, and considered federal and state government responses to knowledge of PFOS on the Williamtown base, is due to report its recommendations in early February.
In October – one month after the public was told about a problem that Defence, the Environment Protection Authority, Hunter Water, Port Stephens Council and other government bodies had known for years –the Newcastle Herald revealed a former Williamtown RAAF firefighter’s memory of “copious amounts” of firefighting foam being sprayed on the base for years.
Bob Ingle, 74, who was a firefighter at Williamtown for 16 years, said firefighting foam was used to control dust at the base, and there were times during training when firefighters were coated in it.
“We used to put it everywhere,” said Mr Ingle, who was diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago.
Ms Rhiannon said it was likely the Senate inquiry would recommend some form of acquisition process for contaminated properties.
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“I feel that’s where it’s heading,” she said.
“I’m taking advice on what form compensation should take. After speaking with people in the affected areas I know that some want to sell, but others are still torn because this is their home.”
Flooding in January had made clear the size of the issue, she said.
“It clearly is extraordinary this contamination is still on the base, and still flowing off the base and into surrounding areas during heavy rain.”
Williamtown resident Len O’Connell said he was ready to sell the 90-hectare property his wife’s family had owned for more than a century.
“I don’t think it’d be a good place to live,” he said, after PFOS at elevated levels was found in bores on his property which is regularly flooded from water leaving the base. The water remains stranded because of failed levees.
Mr O’Connell said he wasn’t angry because “being angry isn’t going to help”.
“I wished it had never happened. You feel a bit let down, that people were kept in the dark for so long.”
The Department of Defence said it was unable to respond to Herald questions by deadline.