Impacts on the affected community
This chapter will consider the evidence received regarding the impact on
the community of the contamination at RAAF Base Williamtown. The majority of
submissions received were from persons in this area outlining how they had been
affected by the announcement of the contamination. A number of key issues were raised.
the precautionary measures;
mental health concerns;
property value and investment;
access to water; and
primary industries and other businesses.
On 8 October 2015, the Expert Panel reviewed preliminary test results
from surface water. Based on the results the Expert Panel resolved to extend
the current NSW EPA investigation area to include major surface water drains
and creeks and the Tilligerry Creek fisheries closure area. All residents located
in the investigation area (Figure. 1) have been advised to continue to
take precautions while further assessments are undertaken. These precautionary
not drinking or preparing food from private water bores, or water
from dams, ponds, creeks or drains;
not consuming eggs from backyard chickens or milk from cows and
goats that have been drinking bore water or surface water in the area; and
not consuming fish, prawns or wild oysters caught in the nearby
Several affected residents expressed their concern that there was no
clarity regarding the period these precautionary measures would need to be
applied. At the public hearing Mr Cain Gorfine from the Williamtown and
Surrounds Residents Action Group (WSRAG) articulated these concerns:
[N]ot only has the precautionary approach shut everything
down but it has also put our lives on hold. Regardless of what our levels come
back as in our water or our surface water, the same precautions still apply
indefinitely. Why?...(1) because it is still leaching from the base and they do
not know how to contain it and (2) the unique hydrology of the area
necessitates, by that very fact, that groundwater and surface water mix
according to the charge and discharge rates of the aquifer. So what might be
contaminated today may not be contaminated tomorrow, and vice versa. They just
do not know.
The uncertainty of the situation facing the affected residents was also
highlighted by Ms Rhianna Gorfine who observed:
[W]e have been advised that for the last 40 or 50 years these
contaminants have been leaving the base. They do not know whether we are at the
start of the contamination, the middle of the contamination or the end of the
Due to the previous industrial use of PFOS/PFOA there is a background
level of these compounds present in the Australian population and wildlife. The
medical research regarding the impact of elevated levels of PFOS and PFOA in
humans is still developing. However, the NSW Government's information sheet
noted that potentially adverse health effects cannot be excluded:
Studies of workers exposed to these chemicals have not
consistently shown adverse health effects, though impact on blood cholesterol
levels, thyroid function and liver size have been reported in some studies.
Mothers exposed to high levels of PFOA in the drinking water did not have an
increased risk of birth defects in their children... Where there is not enough
scientific evidence to assess health effects in humans, any effects in animals
are then assessed. Certain laboratory experiments on rats have indicated some
potential to promote cancer, but it is not clear if these results have implications
for human health.
PFOS/PFOA have half-lives in human beings ranging from 2 to 9 years,
depending on the study.
The Department of Health's National Industrial Chemicals Notification and
Scheme (NICNAS) provided the following:
PFOS and PFOA are eliminated very slowly from the human body,
and so concentrations of the chemicals in the body increase over time if they
are continuously consumed in food or water. They have been shown to have
effects, particularly in the liver, at low doses in animal tests but the
scientific literature on their effects in humans does not give clear, unambiguous
Professor Ravi Naidu from CRC CARE noted that once the pathways to human
exposure are closed or minimised then levels of PFCs in the human system will
reduce over time. He observed that the 'half life of PFCs in the human system
is somewhere between 3.8 to 5.4 years so for it to come out of the system can
take that long, although for animals it can vary quite a lot'.
His colleague, Professor Megharaj Mallavarapu noted that because these
chemicals were persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic a precautionary approach
should be taken in relation to human health while further research is
Defence repeatedly emphasised in its evidence to the committee that
there was no conclusive evidence regarding the human health effects of PFOS and
PFOA. In particular, it highlighted that there were 'no globally accepted peer
review studies showing that exposure to PFOS and PFOA affects human health'.
Further, the National Health and Medical Research Council did not specify a
level for these chemicals in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines updated
in March 2015. It noted that 'long-term health studies in the USA of the
workers that manufactured this product do not show any chronic health effects'.
Possible health impacts from long term exposure to PFOS or
PFOA are not fully understood. The compounds are 'emerging contaminants' and,
to date, research into the possible effects on human health is not conclusive.
However, the National Toxics Network (NTN), a non-governmental
organisation working in the area of toxic chemicals and contamination, disputed
the statement that it was unknown whether PFOS/PFOA causes adverse health
effects in humans.
It noted that, in 2006, the Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee of
the Stockholm Convention had concluded:
Given the inherent properties of PFOS, together with
demonstrated or potential environmental concentrations that may exceed the
effect levels for certain higher trophic level biota such as piscivorous birds
and mammals; and given the widespread occurrence of PFOS in biota, including in
remote areas; and given that PFOS precursors may contribute to the overall
presence of PFOS in the environment, it is concluded that PFOS is likely, as a result
of its long-range environmental transport, to lead to significant adverse human
health and environmental effects, such that global action is warranted.
NTN stated that '[o]ngoing research after the completion of the PFOS
risk profile has only served to confirm the toxicity of this most persistent
chemical, including its serious immunotoxicity in humans and its synergistic
effects in mixtures with other perfluorinated chemicals, like PFOA'.
Further, NTN highlighted that PFOA 'has now been nominated for inclusion
in the Stockholm Convention due to its dangerous toxicity, extreme persistence,
bioaccumulation and long-range transport':
At the October 2015 meeting of the UN POPs Review Committee,
committee members concluded that PFOA met all criteria for further evaluation
as a POP; a decision that starts its journey to global elimination. In a
consensus decision, the experts agreed that PFOA causes – "kidney and
testicular cancer, disruption of thyroid function and endocrine disruption in
women". In addition, they concluded PFOA was highly persistent, and does
not undergo any degradation under environmental conditions.
Another area of conflicting views was in relation to the need for health
checks and blood testing of affected residents. While Defence has previously
funded blood testing of some residents affected by firefighting foam
contamination in Oakey in Queensland, it did not support blood-testing for
affected residents around RAAF Base Williamtown. It stated:
Defence understands that there are no specific health
conditions which have been globally accepted to be directly caused by exposure
to PFOS or PFOA. As a result, there are no particular health conditions that
could be screened for in a health check. NSW Health has stated that while blood
tests can provide a measure of PFOS, they are not recommended because they do
not predict the level of health risk.
Dr Mathew Klein from Defence described blood-testing as 'not a good
idea'. He told the committee:
Unfortunately, it does not give us an indication of a
particular level of risk. It does not give us an indicator of a particular
medical management. It also creates a huge degree of anxiety.
In contrast, many residents wished to receive support to undertake blood
tests and other health testing. The Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action
Group (WSRAG) articulated the anxiety that many residents already felt:
We...have to live in fear of any past, present and future
health effect to not only us, but our pets and livestock. Since day one we have
been calling on systemic and systematic testing of people, animals, all water
sources including surface and ground water and biota within the red zone. Such
has been the lack of involvement from Defence that we have been forced to
conduct our own testing, at our own expense.
Mr Cain Gorfine from the WSRAG told the committee:
What we have been calling for from the get-go, and what we
continue to call for, is proper blood screening to be conducted for residents
for use down the track. [W]e note that potentially there is no-one here today
representing Hunter New England area health or anyone who can bring a
toxicology point of view and provide objective information....
[O]ur legal advice would suggest it is vitally important,
because we need to reserve our rights in relation to any potential future
health consequences later on down the track. The science may be fluid and
changing as we speak, but we cannot turn around in 15 years and say, 'Gee, I
wish we had had some thorough screening done so we could have some comparative
The Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group (FCRAG) also wished for a
health study 'to establish a base line for future health monitoring'. It
described the NSW Health's position as 'not convincing' and noted blood testing
was being undertaken in other countries in response to potential PFOS/PFOA
The NSW Farmers' Association also observed:
The interim report into a current inquiry into a similar PFOS
contamination in Victoria...contains a recommendation that the Victorian
Government assess the feasibility of providing voluntary testing for PFOS to
those affected. The Government, through the Department of Health and Human
Services, is to report on the feasibility of this process by September 2015.
NSW Farmers understands that these tests would not be considered valid, but
such recommendations underline the community concern about testing for human
health and the anxieties for those in the immediate vicinity.
The provision of health advice to affected residents was criticised with
many affected residents expressing uncertainty regarding their circumstances. The
Port Stephens Council considered it was 'clear that information being disseminated
to property owners and the public related to human health has been poorly
communicated and managed, has been confusing and entirely inadequate'.
Concerns regarding the health and welfare of ADF and civilian personnel
at RAAF Base Williamtown who were potentially exposed to firefighting foams
were also raised during the inquiry.
For example, it was noted a study of firefighters working with AFFF at training
facilities in Australia found that the concentrations of PFOS were positively
associated with years of employment involving AFFF contact.
Mr Grzeskowiak from Defence told the committee that the staff who have
lived on the base at Williamtown were unlikely to have been significantly
exposed to the PFOS/PFOA as RAAF Base Williamtown operates off town water.
The firefighters who
would have used these foams are probably the cohort of people who may have had
an exposure, although, as I think we have discovered, the main exposure routes
are through ingestion. The advice I have received is that dermal contact—that
is, contact on the skin—with the firefighting foam is not a route for it to get
into the body. 
However, the Defence submission acknowledged that '[g]iven that Defence
used AFFF widely from the 1970s to the early 2000s, there is no accurate way to
assess the exact number of Defence personnel who may have been exposed to PFOS
and PFOA'. It noted that Defence personnel can access the Defence Exposure
Evaluation Scheme (DEES) which open to current and former employees of the
Department and Australian Defence Force cadets who suspect that they have been
exposed to a hazard.
Mental health issues
Many submitters and witnesses were concerned about the impact of the
stress and uncertainty caused by the contamination on the mental health of
affected residents. For example, Mr Gorfine, who interacts with many
Williamtown residents through his role with the WSRAG noted:
People are pacing the halls [at] night. They are fighting
with their spouses....People are scared.
Mr Lindsay Clout from the FCRAG also made the point that the 'mental-health
pressure is mounting on people because there is such little information...because
this is an emerging contaminant—about the health impacts':
There is anecdotal information out there and a little bit of
hyperbole as well, which is adding to the problem. As soon as an ailment comes
onto an individual, what do they think? Whether or not it is associated with
this chemical is often secondary, because the mental-health pressures are
mounting as time goes on.
The local member, Ms Kate Washington MP told the committee that the
stress of the contamination had led to 'very real and very concerning' mental
health issues in the community and that since the news of the contamination she
had witnessed 'many residents in distress'. In particular, she emphasised the
need for 'ongoing and accessible mental health services available to all
Ms Washington stated:
The uncertainty of the nature and extent of the health
impacts particularly, is causing deep concern. The loss of livelihoods and the
plummeting property values is also, understandably, placing immense pressure on
I have written to State and Federal Ministers seeking
financial support for families who require counselling, together with additional
counselling services to meet the need.
At the Newcastle hearing, Ms Calvert from the NSW Department of Premier
and Cabinet reported that through the community engagement process there 'are
significant concerns around individuals in the community that have been
impacted by this particular event—certainly mental health'. She stated:
In the community drop-in events, we have had to provide
mental health officers that people could go and talk to. We have also provided
the non-government sector, such as the Red Cross, who provided psychological
first aid in the first instance. Through the EPA fact sheets and through
Health, we have been making sure that people know the pathways to have access
to support in that area as well, but it has been quite traumatic for a number
of individuals in that area, and we recognise that; it is acknowledged.
Property value and investments
The NSW EPA's investigative area for PFOS/PFOA contamination from RAAF
Base Williamtown was frequently referred to as the 'red zone'. When questioned
about the selection of the 'red zone', the NSW EPA noted that it was not 'making
determinations about a particular level of contamination on an individual
lot-by-lot basis'. The investigation area had been determined on the basis on
information regarding where the NSW EPA believed there was a higher likelihood
of contamination being present.
The impact on the value of property and investments located within the
investigation area was frequently raised. Mr Gorfine from the WSRAG described
the worth of properties in the affected area as 'zero'.
He commented that '[p]erceptions are reality, properties and businesses within
the red zone are worthless'.
This sudden change in the value of property and investments was a
significant shock to residents. In particular, Mr Gorfine observed that a large
percentage of people in the affected area are pensioners or self-funded
retirees who 'have built up their nest eggs and their properties'. He noted
they have had 'all that taken away' due to the contamination announcement.
He told the committee:
The impact it is having, regardless of whatever future health
effects may arise, is that no-one wants to come and live in our area or touch
the area. From an economic point of view we are being crushed. We have a young
family, with three kids, and a half-a-million dollar mortgage. The property is
worth nothing. If I go and spend $50 on a tin of paint to paint my gutters I am
overcapitalising. I have no future, economically.
Similarly, Ms Julienne Curry described how her family had purchased a
property in the affected area in 2014:
Our purpose for the move was to substantially improve the
property with a view to selling it with a fair capital gain to supplement our
retirement funds. We undertook due diligence in relation to researching the
area as part of our conveyancing and there were no impediments to suggest this
was anything other than a desirable property in a great location...
Full knowledge of this disaster was available to relevant
bodies well before we purchased our property but it wasn't made available to us
as buyers. Obviously if it had been shared before September 3rd we would never
have made the mistake of buying a property in Williamtown. Nor would we have made
such a large financial investment in improvements...
Worse than this is the fact we remain in the "Red
Zone" with no hope of this changing due to the unpredictable nature of the
way the contamination may travel in the future. This translates into a massive
financial loss for us, as like others, our property is not desirable to
purchasers and is severely reduced in value. While claims that its value is now
zero seem extreme it is probably close to the truth.
Like many residents, Ms Curry hoped for urgent action 'in the form of
compensation or compulsory acquisition at pre-contamination value'.
Water access and use
Much of the area around RAAF Base Williamtown is currently not on town
water or with sewer access. Mr Justin Hamilton from the FCRAG outlined:
Fullerton Cove and
parts of Williamtown are on tank water, and originally bore water. Most farms
have one or two bores, and the water aquifers are the same aquifers that pump
to Grahamstown Dam when they are on. They have been topped up in people's
tanks, and they have been used to drink from for more than 100 years.
Defence outlined that if contamination was detected in an area that
residents use for drinking water, Defence was providing free drinking water to
that household. Currently, 38 households were being provided with drinking
water by Defence.
Mr Grzeskowiak from Defence stated:
Our priority has
been, and continues to be, that Defence personnel, residents and businesses
continue to have access to safe drinking water. We have asked the residents
near RAAF Base Williamtown to let us know if and how they are using bore water.
Where they are using it for drinking, we are testing their bores. Where it is
their only source of drinking water, we are providing fresh potable water free
However, a number of concerns were raised with sustainability of this approach.
Mr Buffier from the NSW EPA noted that 'groundwater that is down gradient from
the Williamtown base may remain unfit for domestic use for decades as a result
of the contamination'. He recommended 'the Commonwealth should arrange for the
provision of reticulated potable water to the affected properties'.
Similarly, the Port Stephens Council noted 'the identification of the
chemicals of potential concern...in both the surface and groundwater system has
significantly restricted the ability of property owners located within the
investigation area to utilise a water source that has historically been
available to them for drinking, agricultural and other domestic and commercial
purposes'. It stated:
It is our view that
Defence has an obligation to make available to all affected properties an
alternate long term water supply. It is suggested that the water supply should
be a reticulated supply managed by Hunter Water Corporation. In that instance,
the provision of a reticulated water supply should be funded by Defence with
planning to be commenced immediately.
Ms Kate Washington stated:
In addition, families
who have experienced positive bore water test results have received only
bottled water in response. Initially, there were reports of water tanks being
delivered but that appears to have ceased. When a family was recently informed
of a positive water tank result, the family has only received bottled water and
has been forced to buy their own replacement water tank. I have requested
reimbursement for the family and additional assistance. To date, I have had no
Mr Clout from the FCRAG reported some residents were driving to Stockton
to the local park to fill drums of water. Mr Hamilton also noted:
[W]e have bottled
water being delivered to our residents—[but] we do not have a disposal system
yet for the empty bottles—and we have a hotline that our residents ring that
does not get answered when they run out of water.
Another impact of on the community was the potential restriction on
water supplied from the region. For example the FCRAG described the
contamination as putting at risk the Newcastle City water supply. It noted that
Hunter Water was now no longer pumping from Tomago Sand Beds bores close to
contamination site and the three bores closed off represented two per cent of
the city's drinking water.
Hunter Water outlined that it had ceased drawing water from three bores
around RAAF Base Williamtown – PS9, PS7 and PS5. At the hearing on 22 December
2015, Mr Darren Cleary from Hunter Water emphasised the importance of the
Tomago Sand Beds to the overall water supply to the lower Hunter region. He
indicated that while Hunter Water could manage the embargo of certain bores
around RAAF Base Williamtown, the longer term issues were 'of concern'. He noted:
The Tomago Sand Beds
supply approximately 20 per cent of the drinking water to the lower Hunter. We
service around 575,000 customers in the lower Hunter. The sand beds are a very
important water source for us. We do not run them or extract water from them
all the time, but in dry conditions, when the levels in our two major dam
storages fall, the sand beds are a particularly important water source for us.
In its submission Hunter Water noted:
Based on the risk of
drawing Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) towards Hunter Water borelines,
pumping stations PS5, PS7 and PS9 have been embargoed. In 2015 PFAS
contamination has been detected at PS9, presumed to be from a plume of
contamination originating from the North East corner of the RAAF Base
The impact of not
being able to use these borelines is a reduction in the overall yield of
drinking water from the Tomago Sandbeds. Hunter Water estimates that the loss
of these bore lines represents around a 10% reduction in the amount of water
that can be accessed over the long term from Tomago Sandbeds and around a 15%
reduction in the peak production capacity of the Tomago Sandbeds. The
represents 1.5 billion litre of water.
Loss of long term
production capacity will have an impact on when a new water source will be
required as the region grows into the future. It is estimated that this loss
will bring forward the required timing of a new water source by 2 to 3 years.
The cost of bringing forward the next source augmentation is in the order of
tens of millions of dollars...
Given the significant
community investment and benefit that is obtained from the Tomago Sandbeds
groundwater scheme, it is incumbent on the Australian Government to make every
effort to restore Hunter Water's ability to use this important drinking water
source. Failing this, Hunter Water will seek financial compensation for the
expense that will be incurred in providing alternative water supply capability.
On water supply issues, Defence noted that it was 'working closely with
Hunter Water Corporation and has already committed to share groundwater and
modelling results in order to develop any management strategies that may be
required for the aquifer'.
Primary industries and other businesses
Evidence regarding the impact on primary industry and other businesses
located within the NSW EPA investigation area was limited. While the
Commonwealth Government has provided an assistance package for the commercial
fishers, other primary producers have not received financial assistance.
Defence stated that it was 'unaware of any land-based primary producers
affected by the contamination in the investigation zone'. It noted that primary
producers 'have not been advised to stop using bore water to water vegetables
or crops, or as drinking water for stock'.
The local member, Ms Kate Washington MP highlighted the concerns of some primary
People are sitting there saying, 'My bores are higher than
what is acknowledged as being contaminated water in Queensland. Am I in some
way acting inappropriately to use that at all for anything? What if I use it
for my beef and it gets contaminated? What do I do about beef? Do I tell people
that my cattle are drinking this water? Is my land now contaminated? Should I
be notifying the Contaminated Land Register?' It is creating the damage. You
can imagine. People are in this moral and legal conundrum: 'What do I do?
The FCRAG noted that the pollution of the groundwater, leading the NSW EPA
to recommend that bore water not be used, has meant that residents and farmers
off base have been unable to use this water for growing vegetables and for livestock.
Mr Hamilton from the Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group also stated:
We have some residents who farm fine alpaca wool, others who
breeds dairy cows. They feed and breed the dairy cows on the fine pasture, and
then send them out to feedlots. We are being told not to eat the eggs or the
chickens, but these cows are grazing on the grass in the rich flood plains and
then being sent to feedlots to feed milk for all of us and all of you. We have
an Angus stud across the road and they are grazing on the grass right now.
The NSW Farmers' Association recommended that Defence 'provides a clear
and accessible format guide for farmers to apply for specific costs in regard
to the impact on their business of closures as a result of PFOS/PFOA'.
It noted that it had written to Air Commander Steve Roberton at RAAF Base
Williamtown 'to request that [D]efence fully compensates farmers affected by
the loss of productivity and costs incurred in relation to the contamination.
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