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Hearts and Minds: A Chattr Investigative Exclusive on Water Contamination in the Hunter

6 minutes to read

This is the second part in a multi-part series. If you’d like to read up on the scientific side of the scandal, go here.

It has been twelve months since the NSW EPA revealed that much of Williamtown and its surrounds were contaminated by carcinogenic & toxic chemicals from the nearby RAAF base. Since then, the federal government has committed $55 million to solving the problem in Williamtown, Oakey, and other affected areas.

This money has done little to alleviate the concerns of those living in the ‘Red Zone’.

Family Matters

Nick Marshall owns a house in the ‘Red Zone’ – the area directly contaminated by chemicals leaving Williamtown RAAF base. He and his family moved to Salt Ash from Sydney two years ago, and twelve months before the EPA revealed the extent of the contamination.

“This ticked all the boxes for us up here. We love the beach, and we love fishing and doing all those sorts of things. The plan was: we’ll fix the house up and build something we can retire in… do it right the first time, and we’re gonna be here for the next fifty years,” he said. “For one point in our life we’d actually gotten in front.”

The Marshalls believed that they would not be affected by the contamination because they didn’t keep chickens or eat produce from their own garden. While they were concerned that there might be some risk posed by the bore water Nick and his sons used to wash their trucks, a NSW health advisor said that it would be minute.

Nick’s blood work shows PFOS/A at elevated levels in his bloodstream. The property that he and his family spent so much time and money restoring is also contaminated. They were refused a loan against the value of the house – a house that they own in its entirety, with no mortgage.

“Things started off very slow. Everyone sort of sat back and waited. You know – ‘they’re gonna fix this’. And time went by, and they did nothing and still have done nothing, which is most disappointing.”

Nick Marshall in his Salt Ash home.
Nick Marshall in his Salt Ash home. Photograph by Jordan Bell.

Many of the Red Zone’s residents have found themselves bound to their properties, unable to leave and running their businesses at a loss. The Marshalls’ primary source of income is transporting Department of Defence vehicles to auction. Since the extent of the contamination was discovered, they have had to let a driver go. One of their trucks, in need of a new engine, sits dormant up the road. Defence is unwilling to finance loans to small businesses because they have not been directly impacted by the contamination.

“They’re saying ‘we haven’t stopped people from coming, we haven’t stopped you from trading’… The laughing part is that a hundred thousand bucks back then (2002-3) would have fixed this entire issue. It would’ve dispersed, it would’ve gotten away. Probably right now we’d

be looking at some tiny little figures.”

“They told us we’d be right. They were wrong.”

Other residents have been impacted similarly to the Marshalls. Ryan Baker, a member of the Williamtown and Surrounds Community Action Group, owns a fishing store that is now in financial trouble because of trickle-down effects of the contamination.

The commercial fishermen, who usually spearfish, have not been coming due to a lack of money. Ryan also stated that it seems like everyone has turned to drinking, and people who never smoked took up smoking. “Smoking and drinking.”

Ryan Baker, whose business has suffered as a result of the contamination.
Ryan Baker, whose business has suffered as a result of the contamination. Photograph by Jordan Bell.

Community Affairs

The Marshalls belong to Salt Ash Community First, one of many action groups set up in the wake of the revelations. Different areas of the Red Zone have different remediation needs, and the propensity of groups serves to ensure that those needs are met. However, this splintered approach can lead to divisions within the community they are fighting to save.

A resident who declined to be named believes it has become a real battle ground within the community, and that is simply the nature of beast, but it is certainly unhelpful.

However, another resident of Salt Ash states that they’re all working towards the same goal, and that’s what is disappointing.

“And then you get powerful personalities involved as well, who kind of have their own agenda… But that’s human behaviour. It’s disappointing because the people who don’t speak up, who are just suffering and want to get out, aren’t heard.”

The resident also elaborates on the popping up of numerous groups who all have different directions and causes; some might be aligned with political persuasions that others aren’t.

A jet takes off from Williamtown RAAF base.

Indeed, the perceived blunderings of local, state and federal government have pushed voters towards alternative political parties. One Nation is experiencing something of a renaissance in the Hunter region on the back of the contamination scandal. Speaking to the Newcastle Herald in July, Senator Brian Burston said:

“The major parties are ignoring the people affected by contamination. The Department of Defence couldn’t care less. Pauline Hanson told the people of Oakey she was going to take a bottle of contaminated water and plonk it on Malcolm Turnbull’s desk. I’ll be fighting the same for the people of Williamtown who’ve had to push and push and push but no one in power seems to care.”

It isn’t difficult to see why the people of Williamtown and Salt Ash would see One Nation as a viable political alternative. Residents are looking for anybody who isn’t deaf to their concerns.

“Their (The Department of Defence’s) response is pathetic. It’s negligence, is what it is.” Said Nick Marshall. “If this was a private company there’d be criminal charges being laid…they have done nothing, and continue to do nothing.”

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The Department of Defence has yet to properly outline their plan for Williamtown and its surrounds. Every day, more contaminated water leaks out of Moors Drain. Many residents are now placing their faith in a class-action lawsuit launched against Defence by IMF-Bentham and Gadens Lawyers. A similar case has been brought against Defence by Shine Lawyers in Oakey, Queensland. The Department of Defence is still refusing to admit any culpability for health problems.

“We hesitated (in joining the class-action) for a while and then said ‘Ah well, fuck it.’ They’re not coming out to save the day…We’re not expecting great things,” Nick said. “We’re hoping for great things, but we’re not expecting great things.”

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