22:47, July 23 85 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-23 22:47:02
Defence and security blog  
 We live in the red zone and will fight until defence department clean up their mess

On 4 September 2015 I received a text message that turned my life upside down.

It was from the Department of Primary Industries stating that Fullerton Cove, a bay of water near Williamtown airforce base in New South Wales, where I have made my living as a third-generation fisherman for decades, was closed immediately to commercial fishing due to an unknown contaminate.

These four lines meant my ability to earn an income was substantially altered, and made parts of my business worthless overnight. I’d spent the last few months preparing for the season to open. Until now, the weather conditions meant it was predicted to be one of the biggest seasons in years. Now we were looking at financial ruin with no redundancy payment, no compensation, no notice period and simply no answers.

We now know that the Department of Defence and the NSW Environmental ProtectionAuthority were aware that dangerous chemicals from firefighting foam used on the Williamtown airforce base had been leaching into surrounding properties and waterways for years.

However, for at least two years it “studied” the flow of material without seeing any reason to inform us that the water we were drinking and washing in, the food that we were eating, the very soil under our feet, may well be killing us slowly.

The first community meeting was the biggest buck-passing event I’ve ever witnessed. A room full of authorities and agencies – from the health department to the water department and defence – and no one wanted to talk, they just kept passing the questions on to each other. This set the ongoing pattern as we were stonewalled and provided no way forward.

Within hours of my first text, there were media reports that our property, which my family and I had lived on for decades, was within the “red zone” of contamination. This meant that my entire family may have been exposed to potentially life-threatening chemicals called perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

At the time, I was uncertain of the medical concerns we could be facing or the long-term implications that PFOA and PFOS would have. I’d worked and lived with this chemical for over 35 years and the worry about its impact on my family and friends made me feel physically sick and led to many sleepless nights. In the absence of information, speculation started about cover ups, feeding our fury, anger, distrust and disappointment about this unfolding event.

But as weeks passed, a new announcement was made that the fishing grounds would be closed for a further month, then the next announcement was a closure of nine months. That was the entire season gone.

We were fast approaching Christmas and bills were mounting as we were unable to work. Being unable to earn a normal income was a humiliating and degrading event after being self-sufficient my whole life. The only action from the government – which had caused the problem – was to offer a small amount to maintain our idle business and some access to Centrelink payments. The Salvation Army offered support at this extremely stressful time of our lives, which we were grateful for.

And it hasn’t been getting better. The contaminate continued to flow from the base into the surrounding drains and ultimately to the waterways. At every step, the Department of Defence seems to address the contamination it has caused by downplaying the situation, providing information slowly, secretively and determinedly refusing to take responsibility.

For example, rather than the department keeping us informed about the latest efforts to clean up the mess, it is only through our own research that the community discovered it had been listed on the dangerous chemical registrar many years before. So why was this chemical allowed to remain stored in an unsealed storage pond slowly seeping into the drains?

Defence staff are constantly rotated, perhaps to ensure that no personal connection is formed to the community. Information is always minimal and based on the assumption that these proven dangerous chemicals are actually safe.

However, as we have researched US studies where the science is more advanced or less covered up, we have become more worried. Many residents have become so concerned, particularly for their children, that they have packed up and left their homes. Although we were advised heavily against blood testing by the defence department we are now discovering that many of us have very high levels of PFOS and PFOA.

I am furious at how the Department of Defence “manages” us as a problem it seems determined to pass on to someone else and not accept responsibility.

Adding to that, they now want to expand the Williamtown RAAF base to lengthen the runway for their latest fighter planes. At a time when those of us living in the red zone are facing financial uncertainty and an inability to sell or mortgage properties, the polluter has no problem getting approval to expand as far as it needs.

Works have continued on the base, adding insult to the losses sustained to community businesses and homes. We are repeatedly told the NSW Environmental Protection Authority has no jurisdiction over the defence department. This has left us feeling like we have no one to stand up for us; that the defence department is more important than us.

We are not a wealthy community at Williamtown and Salt Ash, but we are a strong community. We understand that we are up against a vast and inflexible bureaucracy in the defence department. However, we have no choice. We live and work here in the red zone and we will fight until we get the defence department to clean up the mess it created.