Residents of Williamtown in NSW have expressed their anger with the Department of Defence after revelations it delayed informing them about contamination in their water supply.
An independent review into how the NSW Environmental Protection Authority managed the contamination found Defence knew about the problem years before informing residents.
Firefighting foam chemicals from the Williamtown RAAF base leached into the town’s groundwater, and residents are locked in a battle with Defence over remediation and compensation.
Williamtown residents said their blood was boiling after reading the review’s final report into how authorities dealt with the contamination of their water.
“It highlights the multiple failings of Defence [and] confirmed exactly what we have known and what we’d feared that action should have been taken a lot sooner,” said Rhianna Gorfine, who is part of a local action group.
Williamtown residents have launched a class action against Defence, claiming compensation for their declining land values because of the contamination.
Ms Gorfine said the report showed there could be many other sites and communities which had not yet been notified about potential problems.
“The Australian Government needs to get on and make sure there are coherent national guidelines, so we don’t see a repeat of what’s happening in Williamtown,” she said.
‘This legislative gap has been a real problem’
The review found Defence failed to act promptly and decisively and delayed communicating with both the NSW EPA and the community about the contamination.
Macquarie University’s Professor Mark Taylor, who conducted the review commissioned in 2015, said Defence knew of the contamination as early as late 2012.
“Defence did not go to the public with this information that there may be a risk to human health,” Professor Taylor said.
“It was NSW Government, led by NSW EPA, that delivered that information, albeit a couple of years or so after they’d accepted there was a problem and potential risk.”
Professor Taylor also pointed to the review’s other key finding, which was a lack of proper ownership by all parties over the contamination issue.
“The problem that we face, or all state and territory governments face, is that they cannot regulate Federal Government activities that may impact state lands,” he said.
“This legislative gap has been a real problem for the EPA in dealing with this problem.”
The NSW EPA said it could not comment on the report until it had been assessed by state Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton.
“Professor Taylor’s report found the EPA may have been more proactive in its management of Williamtown contamination between 2012 to 2015,” Ms Upton said in a statement.
“But the EPA and other NSW Government agencies’ responses since August 2015 have been timely and appropriate.”