Part Five: The response

Five words could have changed everything about the Williamtown contamination scandal.

Michael McGowan and Carrie Fellner report.

IT WAS the night that should have solved everything.

On a Wednesday evening late in September, a couple of hundred people packed into the Tomago Bowling Club to hear the commanding officer of the Williamtown RAAF Base speak.

About a month earlier they’d learned that contamination from the base had for years been leaching onto their properties with the full knowledge of the Department of Defence, the Environmental Protection Authority, Port Stephens Council and Hunter Water.

The meeting had been arranged by the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action group – set up originally to oppose a sand mine – after frustrations had boiled over at a similar gathering at the Stockton RSL Club a fortnight earlier.

An information leaflet distributed before the meeting said it was “not a finger pointing exercise” but that “many of the local residents feel left in the dark and frustrations are growing rapidly”.

For those who turned up that night, the outcome could not have been more positive.

Air Commodore Steve ‘Zed’ Roberton, then the senior officer at the base, attended wearing his fatigues. He apologised for having to leave early, and for not having more to tell them.

Then he said the words that residents had been waiting for, and have been waiting to hear again since, explaining why there had been – to that point – no admission from liability from Defence.

“It is not a lack of action because people don’t think it (the contamination) exists, the polluter pays, that’s Defence,” he said.

“Defence polluted here, Defence pays, it’s actually getting the mechanism for the money to get it to the right group, as I understand it.”

But the sentiment would not last.

A month later, an outsider, Air Vice-Marshal Greg Evans was brought in to be Defence’s official spokesman on the contamination issue.

By December, Commodore Roberton had been replaced in his role as Senior ADF Officer at the base.

He has not spoken publicly since that night, and in December at a Senate inquiry hearing into the contamination in Newcastle, Defence official Steve Grzeskowiak
said the Commodore’s comments “may have been reported incorrectly”.

“It is not the departmental position that we accept that compensation will be payable,” he said at the time.

Defence denies that Commodore Roberton’s role changed because of his statements that night, saying in a statement that he is “focused on the difficult task of maintaining the required support for our Air Combat commitments to Operation Okra and preparation for the introduction of the Joint Strike Fighter into service over the next few years”.

But nevertheless, department officials have refused to accept liability for the contamination ever since, and in April the assistant Defence minister Michael McCormack told reporters in Darwin that; despite links to kidney disease, testicular cancer and immunisation issues in children, among other health issues – there were “no links whatsoever” between the chemicals and health issues.

Air Commodore Steve 'Zed' Roberton
 (left) in 2015. Photo: Charles Elias

Air Commodore Steve 'Zed' Roberton (left) in 2015. Photo: Charles Elias

“It’s typical of what Defence do,” says Lindsay Clout, a prominent Fullerton Cove resident who also spoke at that meeting in September.

“They make statements about what they will do that have no relationship to what they actually plan on doing,” he said.

While Mr Clout believes that Defence’s attitude has improved in recent months, he says their general attitude is for things to remain “business as usual”.

It’s an approach that has become key to understanding the frustration felt by Williamtown residents.

Cain Gorfine is the head of the community group that organised the Tomago meeting, and has since launched a class action legal case against the department.

“You've got a really odd situation where the polluter is dictating the terms of their own cleanup operation and puppeteering the whole thing,” he said.

“It's a totally upside down situation.

“If they were a private operator it would have been totally taken out of their hands.

“Defence are a department comprised of a whole bunch of bureaucrats who have no experience whatsoever in environmental remediation no experience in community consultation and they've lost all social licence in our area as a result.

“That is why we decided many months ago that the only way we would get action was to take it to them legally, otherwise we're going to be sitting here in another 10 years talking about the same things again.”

Much of the frustration has centered on the inability to stop the spread of the contamination from the base.

In May the government announced it would spend $9 million to treat water leaving the base’s man-made Lake Cochran, the first step it has taken to stop the spread of the contamination.​

Contaminated ground and surface water from the lake leaves the base and flows into Dawsons drain, which eventually leads to Fullerton Cove.

It is expected to be operating by September, a year since the issue was made public, and at least a decade after Defence first knew about fire fighting foam contamination at the base.

But Salt Ash residents in the north have accused Port Stephens Council and other agencies responsible for managing Moors drain of failing to carry out maintenance, leaving it overgrown and choked with weeds.

As a result, during heavy rain contaminated water cascades into surrounding properties, causing flash flooding, instead of flowing out to Tilligerry Creek and eventually to Port Stephens.

Port Stephens Council Asset Section Manager John Maretich said the council was continuing to carry out "routine maintenance and inspections of council owned drains to maintain stormwater flow, including on those located in the Williamtown investigation area."

"At this point there are no further planned works on Council owned drains within the investigation area," he said.

"Ongoing routine inspections shall determine if maintenance works are required and works will be programmed in a prioritised manner." The council would not say how much money had been spent on maintenance in recent years.

In Fullerton Cove, farmer Barry Shearman’s property is outside of the red zone, but water from the base that flows into Dawsons drain eventually finds its way to the rim drain that cuts through his land, flows through flood gates and into Fullerton Cove.

Testing in the rim drain found levels of PFOS 2.72 micrograms per litre. The screening level for swimming water currently used by the EPA and the Department of Defence is 2 micrograms per litre.

Mr Shearman’s paddocks are often inundated with water from the drain when the flood gates are closed, and while he’s glad that steps have been taken to stop the contamination flowing into the rim drain, he wants soil testing on his property so that he can be confident that the land his stock grazes on is not affected by the contaminants.

When the 2015 April storms hit early in the morning the flood gates were closed because it was high-tide, so the contaminated water spilled over onto paddocks throughout Fullerton Cove.

“In saying that, the water’s not ankle deep, it’s three feet deep,” Mr Shearman said.

“In the Pasha Bulker weekend I had about 100 goats trapped up in my top paddock … I could take a 16-foot runabout with a tinnie behind it to get to the goats. “They were standing half way up to their bellies in water.”

Adam Gilligan from the EPA said soil testing was a lower priority because it was seen as a “much lower risk pathway to humans”.

“It’s really where people are consuming water or eggs and chickens that might have consumed water that we’re seeing a higher pathway,” he said.

“As the human health risk assessment is done we’ll have more information.”

The final part of The Foam and the Fury will be published Saturday.