“If we knew then what we know now, we would have handled things differently,” is the frank admission by the Defence official charged with liaising with Port Stephens communities over the Williamtown RAAF Base PFAS contamination revelations.
Assistant secretary (infrastructure) Chris Birrer, who provided part of the Defence’s response to the Senate Inquiry, has defended the government’s response to what many Williamtown and Salt Ash residents have described as being “the most catastrophic event to occur in their lives”.
Mr Birrer, accompanied by Group Captain Peter Cluff from RAAF Base Williamtown, sat down with the Examiner recently and said that Defence had made giant strides in the fight to contain contaminants and keep ‘red zone’ residents updated as new health and environmental information becomes available.
He said that Defence was making every effort to capture and remove the contamination and to ensure that the health of residents living in the catchment area was a priority.
“PFAS is an emerging contaminant and therefore Australian labs couldn’t provide accurate analysis of detection until 2009,” Mr Birrer said.
“There were no national guidelines, NSW EPA had no policy and we didn’t have a full understanding of the nature and extent of the contaminants.
“So a formal environmental protection process was undertaken in order for scientists to provide the advice to government authorities and the community.”
Mr Birrer said that Defence had spent around $10 million by agreeing to pay connections to town water and Hunter Water bills for all residents and businesses living inside the contamination area over the next three years.
“Nationally the government has spent $130 million and treated more than 1.2 billion litres of water by removing the PFAS from firefighting foam and releasing the clean water back into the environment,” he said.
“Our priority now is to break the pathway of contaminants leaving the base and to help people live consistently with the NSW government health advice.”
Defence would continue to provide advice and assistance through public meetings and its website and the Williamtown base had two full-time staff available to talk to people about their personal circumstances.
Mr Birrer said that the PFAS family of chemicals do not occur naturally and could be found in a variety of commercial products such as waxed paper, non-stick cookwear, paints and cosmetic shampoo.
“Whereas previously it was thought that they would biodegrade, US research in the early 2000s found that these emerging contaminants were in fact transportable by water,” he said.
“In response Defence in 2004 changed its training/management practices using purpose built facilities to capture the foam and dispose of it.”
Mr Birrer said that the final human health risk assessment released last year revealed that there was no consistent evidence of human health impact through the exposure of PFAS, but “because we know they bio-accumulate the advice is to minimise exposure and we are working to help people limit that exposure”.
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He said that the government had built three water treatment plants at Williamtown and a fourth should be operational early next year.
“Defence has always been open and transparent, attended all group reference meetings and community information sessions and is constantly updating its website,” he said.
“All reports and lab results have been published and we have commenced voluntary blood testing.”
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