The Hunter has been polluted since Europeans first settled on its banks.
Newcastle coal comprised the first exports from the fledgling colony of New South Wales; the settlement was initially known as ‘Coal River’, then ‘Kingstown’, before finally being named after England’s most productive coal port. The town itself was a secondary penal colony, reserved solely for re-offending convicts and particularly dangerous criminals. When military rule ended in 1823, free Europeans poured into the area. They worked as copper smelters and soap-makers and steelworkers. The waste from these industries poured into the river, reinforcing Newcastle’s pre-existing reputation as a rather hellish place to exist.
But water contamination is not just confined to those years when nobody fully understood its impacts.
In 1972, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries used highly toxic preparations of bromacil, amitrole and 2, 4-D to eradicate a sprawling cannabis infestation along the Hunter floodplain. In 2010, a burst dam at the Unimin bentonite mine released sediment and storm-water into Middlebrook Creek. This required a twelve-week clean-up. In 2011, the Hunter Catchment Management Authority recorded unusually high phosphorous levels at 200 rivers and creeks throughout the region.
And sometime in the 1970s, RAAF Base, Williamtown, began to use a firefighting agent called Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF). AFFF is able to extinguish even the most out-of-control blazes: it can cool and choke a fire in seconds. The Department of Defence considers AFFF to be the agent best suited for their needs.
AFFF contains a pair of chemicals called perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). These chemicals have been used in everything from cookware to car seats. When they escape into the environment, they linger.
PFOS/A can persist in the human body for years. They are both carcinogenic. They are both highly toxic to most forms of carbon-based life. They are incredibly difficult to destroy. And they have been leaking into the groundwater of Williamtown, New South Wales, since the 1970’s.
IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?
“They’ve known since 2003. Why was nothing done? Why was nothing ever dealt with? Is Defence able to stop this? Is Defence willing to stop this? Is Defence going to stop this? They’ve sat there and done S.F.A.”
“Sweet fuck all.”
Robert Roseworne runs a dog & cat boarding business out of his Salt Ash home. In 2012, this sprawling property was valued at $700,000. In 2016, it’s worth nothing.
“We chose here because we’ve got groundwater. We’re now told ‘Don’t eat the eggs’. So the eggs from my chickens get chucked. The vegetables I’ve got out the back? I can’t eat ‘em. The cattle around the area, we’re not supposed to drink the milk from them.”
Robert’s Auramist Lodge sits several kilometres downstream of Moor’s drain – one of the main arteries for waste and storm-water leaving Williamtown RAAF Base. The area is prone to flooding. He’s not sure how many times his land has been swamped
with contaminated water.
“I’m frustrated. My kids come up… one of my sons comes up for child custody on school holidays, and his mum tells him he’s not allowed out of the house. The floods happened in January when the school holidays were on. Water everywhere. We don’t know whether it’s contaminated. We just don’t know! It’s like the human mushroom – kept in the dark and fed shit!”
Rob is also the media co-ordinator for the Williamtown and Surrounds Resident’s Action Group. This position is part spokesperson, part historian: Robert has a comprehensive knowledge of the contamination timeline – especially regarding Defence’s lack of action.
“They commissioned two Uni students to do a report and conduct research on the product overseas. They found that there had been a voluntary recall and call for removal of the product. They found that other statutory bodies and organisations in Australia had removed the product. There’d been enough movement around the world that this product should basically be eradicated. This report was given to and processed up through Defence. Defence did nothing about it.”
Defence was aware of the harmful nature of PFOS in the early 2000s. An American EPA document, dated September 6, 2000, notes the chemical’s incredibly dangerous nature:
PFOS caused postnatal deaths (and other developmental effects) in offspring in a 2-generation reproductive effects rat study (NOAEL of 0.1 mg/kg/day and LOAEL of 0.4 mg/kg/day). At higher doses in this study, all progeny in first generation died while at the LOAEL many of the progeny from the second generation died. It is very unusual to see such second generation effects.
PFOS accumulates to a high degree in humans and animals. It has an estimated half-life of 4 years in humans. It thus appears to combine persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree.
Following this study, and its own independent research, 3M – the manufacturer – decided to phase out their production of PFOS/A by 2002. They also started a voluntary recall on products containing the chemicals.
While Defence sat about, PFOS/A contaminated several local bores and leaked into the Tomago sand beds. This aquifer provides a fifth of the Lower Hunter region’s drinking water. There are two methods of disposal for the chemicals: burnt at 1700 degrees Celsius or higher, or diluted in water to a level of 0.02 parts per billion. This second method – putting it in the sewerage system – should not be used in areas with a predominantly high or sand based water table.
Williamtown has both of these.
It wasn’t until 2013 that Defence began carrying out environmental testing on and off-base. They notified the NSW EPA and Port Stephens’ council at the same time. Affected residents were not informed until shortly before Christmas, 2015.
Air Commander, Steve Roberton, of RAAF Base Williamtown, made his opinions on the matter clear at a community meeting in September
2015. These opinions apparently do not reflect the beliefs of Defence at large. Defence undersecretary Steve Grzeskowiak later claimed that it was “too early for a formal acceptance of liability”. EPA manager, Adam Gilligan, alleged that, prior to the contamination issue being made public, a Defence lawyer told him over the phone that “It (Defence) wouldn’t be taking responsibility for actions that arose out of decisions made to implement prevention measures”.
John Donahoo, FIE and former commander for base support at Williamtown, says that Defence is acting “disconnected and aloof.”
“They’ve broken every rule of public relations. If you have a problem, you get out there and in touch with people. They’ve got lawyers with too much influence. All they want to do is hunker down – build the defences, not say too much – and hope it’ll all go away. That’s not going to happen.”
“We’re now into seven months. And they have done precious little. All they need to do is call a meeting and give people an update of where they’re at. And then they’d get feedback from the community, and it’s very good to get feedback from the community. You get to gauge the feeling of the place. Running away from a problem and hoping that it will disappear is never a solution. Property has to be acquired on just terms.”
Donahoo outlines the cost of several reconstructive programs in a thin document he prepared for the Senate Inquiry. He believes that acquiring the affected properties and compensating workers for lost income would cost at least six hundred million dollars. This will only rise if the PFOS/A still leaving the base is not contained. To this end, Donahoo proposes installing an outer Impervious Containment Wall (ICW) around the base using Geolock, a “sheet-pile barrier system especially developed for intercepting polluting liquids.” He also recommends that several Terminal Drainage Basins be installed, with one placed adjacent to the start of Dawsons Drain and Moors Drain – the two arteries through which most wastewater exits the base.
These two processes cost, respectively “tens of millions of dollars” and “many tens of millions of dollars.” This shouldn’t be an issue. A reasonable mind would imagine that there is no cost too great when it comes to restoring the hopes and livelihoods of the people that Defence claims to protect. The base was recently granted $900 million to upgrade its facilities in time to receive the new F-35A joint strike fighter. During the application process, Defence allegedly concealed the chemical contamination from the Standing Committee on Public Works.
Defence has also worked to discourage the notion that the highly toxic chemicals might be harmful in any way to the human body.
Dr KLEIN, Occupational Physician, Department of Defence: …There are certainly a lot of authorities around the world that would support the notion that there is no consistent or confirmed evidence that there are
human health effects. That does not mean that there are not studies out there that might show there is some association between exposure to these chemicals and a health effect, but these studies have not been confirmed or accepted in a scientific way to conclusively say that these chemicals cause adverse health effects.
A 2013 Defence report lists the main risk driver as Legislative Compliance Reputation.
“The potential for a high degree of community concern associated with the contamination may lead to a high profile legal challenge…it is anticipated that the groundwater and surface water impacts may result in sustained detrimental state (or national) media coverage and sustained community outrage…”
Very little is said about the potential health and environmental hazards.
Over the weekend, the United States EPA delivered their verdict on the health hazards of exposure to PFOS/A. It stated that what was previously considered to be a safe level of exposure to the chemicals is actually far beyond the limit. Robert tells me that his water-tank is now three times over the safe amount of PFOS/A – to speak nothing of others who have already been affected.
PFOS/A contamination has made the land worthless. It’s ripped jobs away from fishermen who depend on the now-embargoed river for their livelihood. Defence’s handling of the situation has left the community high and dry and generated a great deal of distrust in the area. Bad news when you recruit locals.
Williamtown RAAF Base was established in 1941 to provide air protection for Newcastle’s important manufacturing capabilities during the Second World War. This protection was never required. On the single occasion that the city came under attack, the threat – a Japanese submarine – was repelled by coastal guns. Given the consequences of the Department’s negligence, it would be fair to say that Williamtown RAAF Base has done more harm to its country than good.
Robert’s next door neighbour has recently had a new water-tank put in. The old one was contaminated by PFOS. It had leaked into the porous concrete base. Her family had been drinking and showering from the tank for ten years. The Department of Defence delivered several pallets of Pete’s Ridge bottled water to her. How exactly were they supposed to bathe with bottled water?
Robert tells me that Defence advised she put holes in the top of the bottle and microwave it.
“Her husband is wheelchair bound. She’s got arthritic hands that can’t open the bottles. She can’t carry the water up to her house. So we organised a water-tank. Kate Washington took the receipt down to Greg Evans at one of the community meetings and put it on his table.”
PFOS/A contamination is a developing issue on nearly every RAAF Base in Australia. Environmental testing is currently being carried out at HMAS Albatross
for the same reasons. Defence has cautioned the residents of Oakey, Queensland, not to eat produce for fear that it may be contaminated. These so-called ‘legacy’ chemicals will continue to haunt us long after their use is discontinued.
Robert estimates that the two million dollars in financial assistance handed down in the Federal Budget works out to about $25,000 for each fishermen who aren’t able to fish. This is not enough to foot the cost of a new fishing licence for a different area. It’s life support.
For the people of Williamtown, silver linings are few and far between – but there are some.
“You know the one good thing out of it? We live in a semi-rural area. You don’t always know your next door neighbour. And you often don’t know the one after that. But now the community is having barbecues and talking. And if somebody is having a hard time they ring up somebody and four or five people will go over there with some fish. How about a barbecue?”
Photographs by Jordan Bell