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