Federal compensation has finally reached communities with PFAS-contaminated drinking and groundwater, but the ongoing clean-up and lingering health concerns are far from over.

Key points:

  • Compensation from a landmark class action over PFAS contamination has finally reached affected communities
  • Some landowners still living with contamination face water insecurity and health concerns
  • The Department of Defence says there is no way to completely remove PFAS from aquifers, but it is trialling new technologies

Katherine landowners Kristy and Anthony Bartlett live near RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory and were lead plaintiffs in the landmark class action suing the Australian government for allowing toxic PFAS chemicals to escape defence bases and contaminate soil and groundwater in surrounding communities.

The chemicals were used in firefighting foams at Australian defence bases until the early 2000s and are now ubiquitous in the Bartlett family’s groundwater and bloodstream.

“It has been good to have some acknowledgement and compensation, but it’s not the end of the road,” Ms Bartlett said.

Divided health views

The communities of Katherine in the Northern Territory, Oakey in Queensland and Williamtown in New South Wales received a $212.5 million settlement for property value loss, and distress and vexation.

Shine Lawyers’ class actions leader Joshua Aylward said the federal government was yet to face a class action for health impacts caused by PFAS exposure because the link to various diseases was undetermined.

“As time goes by and more research and funding goes towards understanding the link between exposure and disease, legal action becomes more of a possibility,” Mr Aylward said.

PFAS — or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — is the broad name for 4,700 chemicals that do not break down and instead accumulate in soil, water and human bodies.

Katherine's former GP Peter John Spafford is sitting on his verandah in Katherine with contaminated bushland in the background.

Peter John Spafford was Katherine’s GP for a decade and became increasingly convinced PFAS exposure was affecting the public health of his town.(

ABC News: Jon Daly

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The Australian Health Department said the latest evidence suggested exposure was linked with mildly elevated levels of cholesterol, effects on kidney function, and the levels of some hormones.

“PFAS has not been shown to cause disease in humans.”

That view differs from other international health agencies, such as the European Environment Agency, which has “high certainty” of other links to liver damage, kidney and testicular cancer.

Class action member Peter John Spafford worked as Katherine’s GP for a decade and is convinced PFAS has had some influence on the health of his patients.

“There is evidence to say there potentially are problems, there’s this continuing playing down of the impact of PFAS, of which we don’t know what the long-term consequences are,” Dr Spafford said.

A federally funded epidemiological study on residents in Katherine, Oakey and Williamtown by the Australian National University is expected to be published mid-2021.

Oakey cattle stud owner Dianne Priddle is standing in front of several cattle behind wire.

Oakey cattle stud owner Dianne Priddle has been unable to use her groundwater resources during a drought because of contamination.(

ABC News: Jon Daly

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Tainted land and water

While the class action has ended, affected communities are still grappling with the challenges of living in contamination.

Dianne Priddle was once reliant on groundwater at her multi-million-dollar cattle property near Oakey in southern Queensland.

When contamination was discovered, she was forced to stop irrigating pasture crops and send cattle to agistment at a business cost never recognised by the courts, according to Ms Priddle.

“What we got out of it we spent in 2019 in the drought to stay afloat,” she said.

She questioned her prospects of a fair sale price in the future saying “no producer would want to buy into anything like this”.

In Katherine, the Department of Defence built rainwater tanks to replace groundwater bores on rural properties.

Katherine landowner Anthony Bartlett is standing in front of a rainwater tank on his property.

Katherine landowner Anthony Bartlett is concerned about his water supply as the end of a contingent supply contract with the Department of Defence approaches.(

ABC News: Jon Daly

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The Bartlett family signed a contract with the Department of Defence, which requires it to refill tanks for several years if wet season rainfall is not enough.

Top-ups were required after well-below-average wet season rainfall in 2018 and 2019, and with the contract set to lapse at the end of 2022, Mr Bartlett is concerned about future water security.

“The bottom line is they were responsible and still are responsible for the contamination of not only our block, our neighbours’ blocks and all of Katherine, so they should’ve maintained that contract,” Mr Bartlett said.

Department of Defence deputy secretary for estate and infrastructure Steve Grzeskowiak said his department would consider its options closer to the end of the contracts.

“We’ll take a view on how we might ensure we don’t leave people in a situation where their water supply is not sustainable,” Mr Grzeskowiak said.

A sign for a fire training ground near Tindal Airforce base warning of hazardous material.

The chemicals were used in firefighting foams at Australian defence bases until the early 2000s and are now ubiquitous in the groundwater of surrounding communities.(

ABC News: Jon Daly

)

The continuing clean-up

Defence is continuing to clean up contamination sites at Katherine, Oakey and Williamtown by filtering water and pumping it back into aquifers and removing contaminated soil.

Mr Grzeskowiak said his department was also trialling new technologies at Williamtown and a defence base in South Australia.

But removing the contamination from the groundwater entirely was unrealistic, according to Mr Grzeskowiak.

“There wouldn’t be any mechanism, globally, that would confidently be able to extract PFAS from an underground aquifer where the PFAS has spread over a vast area at very low quantities,” he said.

For Ms Bartlett, the lengths taken to address the contamination and compensate affected communities were insufficient and trust lost for the federal government was as permanent as PFAS.

“You do realise you’re just a little pawn out in the backwaters of Australia and your life doesn’t really count for much in the big scheme of things.”

‘Your life doesn’t count for much’: PFAS payout cold comfort as residents’ contamination fears linger
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