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Residents to fight back
Published:  08 September, 2016

The scandal of the contamination of Oakey Army Aviation Centre in Queensland, Australia has attracted activist Erin Brockovich as local residents prepare to launch a class-action lawsuit. Lotte Debell reports.

Erin Brockovich is reported to have told Oakey residents that the contamination from the army base as a result of firefighting drills carried out by the Australian Defence Force is the worst she has ever seen and she has encouraged them to stand together and fight for their town.

The US environmental campaigner, who famously won a case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company for groundwater contamination in Hinkley, California, was speaking at a meeting of residents on 2 August as an ambassador for Shine Lawyers. Shine has been acting for a number of Oakey residents since 2014 and is now putting together the class-action against the Australian Department of Defence, which looks set to be a landmark case.

The contamination crisis has become increasingly political since residents were informed of the contamination in December 2012 following the discovery of toxic chemicals in the pool (wastewater dams) at the Oakey Army Aviation Centre.

The chemicals involved are perfluorinated compounds, mainly PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), amongst many others, which are found in aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) used in firefighting – the same chemicals that have been blamed for numerous adverse health impacts at the CFA Fiskville Fire Training College in Victoria. The foams containing these chemicals were in use by the Department of Defence at Oakey from the 1970s to 2005 and have caused contamination of soil, sediment, surface water and groundwater at the base and in surrounding properties. Properties near the base have been advised not to use bore water for drinking.

Residents have reported that further testing has revealed that levels of these chemicals are increasing, with several properties showing higher levels than two years ago, and that one property, in particular, has contamination levels 50% higher than in 2014.

Not only that, but the AECOM Environmental Site Assessment report published by Defence in July identified a contamination ‘plume’ that stretches up to 4.5km southwest of the base which will continue to be an issue for decades. Models carried out as part of the investigation found that, if no remediation is undertaken, the plume is expected to spread 2km in a similar direction over the next 100 years.

Defence has been heavily criticised for its handling of the crisis from numerous quarters, including by Queensland’s Environment Minister Dr Steven Miles, who has been quoted as saying he is not surprised that residents feel the need to resort to the courts ‘given the way Defence has handled this so far’. Earlier this year the Queensland State Government introduced a new policy that severely restricts but does not ban the use of AFFF. However, Commonwealth land – and therefore Defence sites – lies outside its jurisdiction.

Much of the criticism levelled at the Australian Department of Defence centres on its failure to act on knowledge of the contamination for a number of years and therefore continuing to put local residents at risk of serious health problems. At the time of writing, a report into the possible health effects of the contamination was yet to the published, but various international studies have linked PFOS and PFOA with a number of illnesses, including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and developmental issues – in the UK and the rest of Europe, PFOA is listed as a reproductive toxin – immune damage, ulcerative colitis and hypercholesterolemia.

However, Defence has repeatedly refused to accept that there is ‘any consistent evidence’ to prove that these chemicals cause cancer and other illnesses – a stance that has been described as ‘out of touch with the global response’ by Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, senior adviser from the National Toxins Network. It was also criticised in a recent senate report on the contamination, which found that it had known of the environmental and health risks of foams containing PFCs since 2003.

A report from its own consultants in 2003 warned Defence that these chemicals were present on its lands and that they were ‘environmentally persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic to animals and humans’. The report also stated: ‘both have been implicated with a variety of cancers and toxic health effects in humans that have had long-term exposure to products containing PFOS/PFOA.’

Controversially, Australian Federal environmental health authorities have been accused of ignoring the latest international research and standards on the safe levels of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water and for daily intake when in June they set accepted levels of these chemicals at almost 80 times higher than a recent report from the US Environmental Protection Agency, and some 50 times higher than those currently accepted by the Drinking Water Commission of the German Federal Environment Agency.

In May, the US EPA set acceptable levels of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water as 0.07 micrograms per litre. The new Australian enHealth guidelines set these levels at 0.5 mcg/l for PFOS and 5 mcg/l for PFOA – more than 78 times higher than the US levels. The Australian paper The Courier Mail has reported that the levels being recorded at Oakey have reached up to 20 mcg/l for PFOS and 0.76 mcg/l for PFOA. Shine Lawyers, the firm acting for residents in the class action, say groundwater PFOS contamination levels may be as high as 50-500 mcg/l within the boundaries of the base itself.

In addition, initial blood tests of 75 Oakey residents for the senate report revealed average blood levels of these toxins at levels three times higher than Australians in general, with some recording levels up to 18 times higher. According to Shine, in some residents levels have reached up to 44 times higher. Erin Brockovich told The Courier Mail that the Australia population has higher blood levels of these chemicals than she has seen in the US.

Oakey is not the only site in Australia where contamination with PFOS and PFOA is a concern. The final report into the CFA Fiskville contamination scandal in Victoria was released earlier this year; residents near the Williamtown RAAF base in New South Wales are facing similar concerns to those in Oakey, and at least 16 other Defence sites are to come under urgent investigation out of a possible 100 cases. Investigations are also continuing at 36 civilian airports across the country, according to Air Services Australia. Most recently, RAAF Amberley, also in Queensland, has hit the headlines with the revelation that Defence knew of contamination there back in 2012, and it is possible that this may have spread beyond the base. Amberley has now been prioritised for investigation in 2017.