Part Four: The mental fallout

Kim Mitchell Smith is exhausted.

She only gets about four hours sleep a night. She stays up until the early hours of the morning in front of her computer screen, scanning the internet for information about the toxic chemicals that have seeped out of the Williamtown RAAF base and into her backyard, her bore water and her veggie patch.

What she reads makes her feel physically sick.

"I go to my doctors and I break down and cry," she said.

"I am lost, I don’t know where to go, or how to fix this.

"My husband comes home to what once was a beautiful green property with a happy family; it now holds dead grass and uncertainty for the future."

This is life in the red zone, a community pushed to the brink.

Their property values have beendecimated, they are wracked with fears for their own health and the health oftheir children, and they have become deeply cynical about the governmentdepartment they say has polluted their land, lied to them andthen abandoned them.

Ms Mitchell Smith and her husband Gavin uprooted from Perth four years ago and landed on a semi-rural block in Salt Ash, about seven kilometres to the north-east of theWilliamtown RAAF base.

This was "exactly what we wanted," Ms Mitchell Smith said.

It was a "lovely community", walking distance from the shops at Paul's Corner and the Stockton sand dunes. Their 16-year-old daughter Danielle was thrilled to be able to keep her horses at home.

Many households in this part of the world are proudly self sufficient, collecting eggs from their own chickens and eating the vegetables from their own gardens.

The family learned to live with the roar of the jets overhead. The RAAF was the 'good neighbour'. When news of the contamination scandal broke last September, they had no hesitation in believing they would be looked after.

"I thought if something went wrong they would fix it. How wrong was I," she said.

She has now killed off her chickens. Mangoes, apples and mandarins from her fruit trees lie rotting in the grass. The bore water she had been using to water them is contaminated with the firefighting chemical perfluorooctane sulfonate. Within two years of arriving in Salt Ash both their dogs were dead. Frazer, their boxer, was riddled with cancer.

Their horse, Lady Dee, has been grazing on grass they believe is contaminated. She can no longer be ridden with a bridle because of a "mouthful of tumours."

Now their daughter Danielle tells them "she does not want to die." The family has access to clean tank water but she is frightened after drinking the same bore water that had been used in the animals' troughs.

So is 14-year-old Isabella Buman, who also lives on Nelson Bay Road. She loved to graze on the fruit from the family's garden, until they found out last September it was being watered with contaminated dam water.

"She turned to me and said Mum, I've been eating the oranges all winter," her mother Sarah recalls.

Gavin Smith's feelings of helplessness worsened while leaving his family in the contamination zone for long stretches of time while he worked away.

"I was talking to Kim for two hours each night over Skype and it reached the point where I just wanted to throttle someone," he said.

"The next day I went to the doctor and he prescribed me happy pills."

Lindsay Reinhard and his wife Donna live a stones throw down Nelson Bay Road, towards the RAAF base.

Moors Drain runs from the RAAF base across the back of their property, and when it rains contaminated water from the drain rushes into their paddocks.

After the flood event in April 2015, it pooled stagnant on the grass until September.

Those paddocks, full of horses 12 months ago, are now empty.

In forty years of horse breeding, Mr Reinhard had only ever lost one mare to colic. But in 2014, something changed. Three of his mares died and another two pregnant mares aborted.

"It was extremely unusual," he said. "It was statistically unbelievable."

He is now paying hundreds of dollars to have his horses stabled elsewhere because he can't get an answer from the Environmental Protection Authority over the risk to the animal's health.

"From a cost point of view it is getting very hard to maintain," he said.

"The pastures are green and lush but it could be a death sentence."

Locals gather at the Salt Ash home of Nick and Mel Marshall after work and stay there late into the night, chewing the fat, drinking and researching the contamination.

Mr Marshall runs a trucking business. He drives from Brisbane back to Salt Ash, and spends the entire eight hours on the phone.

He calls the Department of Education, demanding that they test the soil and the grass at the local public school. He calls Hunter New England Health to question where local water carters are sourcing their water and says he is laughed at by the person on the other end of the line.

He doesn't mince his words and the conversations are often heated. They usually end with Mr Marshall feeling defeated.

"I don't even want to go to work at the moment," he said. "You don't want to do anything."

He says some people in the area were on the verge of nervous breakdowns.

"One of our friends in the area, his wife's this tiny little thing. She punched a hole through a gyprock wall the other day out of frustration from all of this.

"She's not that kind of person."

The Marshall's have three young boys, Alex, Jamison and Tasman. Alex speaks animatedly about his guinea pigs in the yard. The boys were devastated earlier this year when their favourite guinea pig, Nibbles, died at six months of age.

The Marshall's also had to get a tumour cut out from under the leg of their two-year-old Kelpie, Duke.

"It's not necessarily this stuff [the contamination], but it's not necessarily not," Mr Marshall said.

They feel betrayed not only by Defence but by every other organisation that knew about the contamination and didn't tell them - the Environmental Protection Authority, Hunter Water, Port Stephens Council.

They are not alone.

Residents are refusing to allow Defence officials onto their properties or to fill out surveys being passed around at community meetings. They fear the information will later be used against them in court. They don't trust the test results that arrive on Defence letterhead.

When it got out that an EPA official involved in the response had a background in politics, he was labelled a “spy” on social media.

Despite the mental anguish residents are facing, they have been reluctant to use a dedicated mental health service established by Hunter New England Health.

The recently retired director of Hunter New England Mental Health Services, Associate Professor Martin Cohen admitted the uptake had been "very limited" so far.

"I've been surprised the level of trust in our service hasn't been as strong as it usually is," he said.

Some residents have expressed concerns to the Herald about their conversations being recorded and Professor Cohen stressed that anything said to a clinician would be kept strictly confidential.

"We're not not bureaucrats, we're not part of any secret government agencies. We want to help."

Professor Cohen said experts were drawing on their experiences working with other rural communities following disasters, such as in Dungog after the April storm.

However he admitted the Williamtown situation was unique.

Fanning the community anger has been the seeming lack of action on the issue, with blood tests and property buy backs off the agenda.

And each day, contamination continues to spill off the base.

Deborah Sketchley's garden is a sight to behold.

She has spent much of the 44 years that she's lived in Salt Ash pottering under the shade of its giant liquid ambers.

Now she rarely ventures out of the house.

"This was my world. I used to come out here all the time. But now, you just lose interest," she said.

"It takes your soul away. That the block that you've worked so hard for, that it's polluted."

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Williamtown Dedicated Mental Health Phone Line: 0417 494 576