Salt Ash Public School battles Department of Defence over water bill

Salt Ash school community with Port Stephens MP Kate Washington.

Salt Ash school community with Port Stephens MP Kate Washington.

A $6000 water bill has pitted the small Salt Ash school community against the might of the Defence Department.

Parents of primary school children are enraged that Defence had refused to pay the bill while it had forked out millions of dollars to residents and businesses affected by the PFAS water contamination emanating from the Williamtown RAAF Base.

Defence has responded by saying that while the federal government had funded the connection of Salt Ash Public School to town water, “ongoing costs are funded by the NSW government”.

“Defence remains in contact with the school and representatives from the Department of Education regarding the outcome of the school’s utility funding,” a Defence spokesperson said.

“Defence’s primary aim is to ensure that all residents within the management area have access to a sustainable source of drinking water.”

School parent Kylie Keen said she was concerned for the health of students who were being exposed to dust particles because the school could not afford to water the lawns.

“The grass is dying and the children have been forced to play in a dust bowl. Defence is happy paying for water usage of the businesses nearby, why not the school,” she said.

Defence was pushed to pay for connection of affected properties to town water, including Salt Ash Public School, after becoming aware of the contamination.

Port Stephens MP Kate Washington has written to the Department of Defence urging them to add the school’s water bill to the residential and business water bills they are already paying.

“Defence is refusing to pay the water bill for the school which previously received free water from its bore water connection,” Ms Washington said.

“This is directly impacting on the students and their families. The children at this school live in the contamination zone – the least the Department of Defence could do is pay this small bill.”

Meanwhile, both Ms Washington and Federal Labor MP Meryl Swanson have joined the Williamtown & Surround Action Group in welcoming the Senate Inquiry report into the government’s handling of PFAS firefighting contamination in and around Defence sites.

Residents group spokesperson Rhianna Gorfine said that it was hoped the government would take heed of the nine recommendations, including the call for compensation and the placing of a coordinator general.

“The community expects that the government will take these findings seriously, otherwise what’s the point. It would be a waste of time and money. The contamination has destroyed families’ lives. We have had to fight so hard to be heard, now we need the government to act,” she said.

Ms Swanson said “these people have been to hell and back” while Ms Washington said that the recommendations were a list of everything the community had been calling for during the past three years, “but time and again the government has failed to listen.” 

Senator David Fawcett, Assistant Minister for Defence, released a statement on Monday saying that while the government had welcomed the findings, there “is still no consistent evidence of human health impacts”.

“The government acknowledges that communities in areas where PFAS contamination has been detected are very concerned about how this may affect them. Their well-being is our focus and we will continue to work closely with them to provide advice and assistance,” he said.

“The government will carefully consider the recommendations and provide a coordinated Whole-of-Australian-Government response, through the PFAS Task Force in the Department of the Environment and Energy.”