Residents of Williamtown were only informed of toxic chemical contamination three years after the Department of Defence stopped using the hazardous fire-fighting foam.

By Joe McDonough

Posted on October 9, 2017

Residents of Williamtown, a region of Newcastle, should have been told about toxic chemical contamination in 2012, but were only made aware of it in 2015.

A Four Corners investigation has revealed that the Department of Defence (DoD) misused 3M’s fire-fighting foam containing toxic perfluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS, until July 2012.

Thousands of litres of the foam has reportedly been expelled onto bare earth or washed into stormwater systems. This is despite US authorities allegedly warning the Australian Government back in 2000 that it could be harmful to human health, and environmental cautions dating further back to 1987.

According to the ABC, US Environmental Protection Agency says there is “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential” associated with the chemicals. It added a major US study found a “probable link” to six diseases including two types of cancer.

Defence admits it should’ve told the public sooner

DoD admitted to culpability. “There’s no doubt about it, that the way we used these products in the firefighting airfields back in the 80s and 90s was not as good as it should have been,” department deputy secretary Steve Grzeskowiak said.

“I think if we had our time again, should we have told the community back in 2012, from the middle of 2012? We probably should.”

Law suits

Almost 1000 people, who lived in the ‘red-zone’ around the Williamtown RAAF airbase, have engaged in two separate class actions seeking financial compensation for Defence negligence.

The Federal Government claims the people of Williamtown had run out of time to bring litigation, even though it only informed them of the contamination in September, 2015.

Can it be cleaned up

DoD says it’s already spent $100 million in the last five years trying to filter the PFAS from stormwater drains leaving the Williamtown base and entering the surrounding suburbs.

However, Four Corners testing revealed elevated levels three weeks ago in stormwater canals like Dawson’s Drain, and laboratory analysis showed one of the PFAS chemicals flowing from the base was 18 times the safe drinking level. Worse, environmental scientist Mark Taylor said there was no way to fully remediate the site.

“You can treat some of the water in the drains, but there’s several of those going off the base, and it’s in the groundwater,” he said. “It’s just so expensive, it’s so complicated … I don’t think you really can. It’s not a practical option.”


It is understood DoD is tackling foam contamination at no fewer than 18 Defence sites. In Katherine, in the Northern Territory, DoD has been supplying bottled water to several communities as intensive firefighting training on the nearby Tindal RAAF base has resulted in contaminated water supplies.

In September, Merlyn Smith, a Katherine resident and mother of two, spoke to the ABC about the fear she had for her family’s health. “I’ve lived here for 30 of my 33 years, so I’d say that’s my entire lifetime and only four months of that have I been drinking it under the safe guidelines,” she said at the time.

Another resident Bob Cavenagh added: “The fact they knew about it [PFAS contamination] in 2004 and nothing came out until 12 years later, that’s my biggest issue.”