40,000 Australians Join Class Action Against Defence Department Over Land Contamination

By Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng is based in Sydney. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Got a tip? Contact him at daniel.teng@epochtimes.com.au.
April 17, 2020Updated: April 23, 2020

Over 40,000 Australians have joined a class-action suit against the Department of Defence for its use of toxic chemicals in fire-fighting foam and its poisonous effect on surrounding properties and life.

It’s the second action filed against the defence department. The first settled in February for a sum of $212.5 million (US$134.3 million).

The lawsuit, filed by Shine Lawyers, alleges the defence department negligently allowed the toxic chemical PFAS to escape from defence bases and contaminate local environments, impacting the land values and the livelihoods of those communities.

The suit represents residents in Wagga Wagga and Richmond in New South Wales; Bullsbrook in Western Australia; Wodonga in Victoria; Darwin in the Northern Territory; Townsville in Queensland, and Edinburgh in South Australia.

Well-known consumer advocate and Shine Lawyers’ ambassador Erin Brockovich has also championed the case.

The lead applicant for the action is Reannan Haswell, who moved to Bullsbrook ten years ago with her partner. “We’re afraid to let our children drink or bathe from our water supply, and we’re trapped on a property with little or no value as a result of our exposure to PFAS,” she said.

The office of Kevin Bailey, Mayor of the City of Swan, confirmed via email to The Epoch Times that packaged drinking water is being delivered to residents. At the same time, longer-term solutions are being investigated at no expense to the landowner.

The council said yearly valuations by Landgate, the West Australian Land Information Authority, revealed property values had indeed declined for properties “affected by water contamination.”

The council is assisting by lowering rate charges.

What Plaintiffs Are Seeking

Shine Lawyers is seeking compensation for economic loss and decreased property values for residents.

Special counsel for Shine, Joshua Aylward said, “In some instances, property owners have seen the value of their land decrease by more than 50 percent.”

Aylward said prices plummeted due to high levels of contamination; in people’s blood, in drinking water, in livestock, and also in surrounding rivers and dams.

The first suit settled in February represented residents of Williamtown in New South Wales; Oakey in Queensland; and Katherine in the Northern Territory.

The defence department stated that settling was “an important milestone on what has been a difficult journey for many people over the past few years.”

The current action represents more plaintiffs than the Black Saturday bushfire class action in 2014 which had 10,000 plaintiffs.

What is PFAS

PFAS refers to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, a human-made chemical that’s resistant to grease, oil, and heat. It’s commonly used in fire-fighting foams and cleaning products.

The defence department has been using PFAS for fire-fighting since the 1970s.

According to Aylward, the chemical is an effective retardant and defence personnel train regularly with it. However, years of training saw run-offs of PFAS into surrounding soil and land.

The defence department began phasing out its use in 2004 because of concerns that the chemicals break down slowly and “can persist in humans, animals, and the environment.”

Research is mixed and yet to reach a conclusion on the exact long-term health effects.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggested there are potential issues with increased cholesterol and a limited connection to cancer and immune system problems.

The House of Representatives in the United States earlier this year passed a bill requiring the EPA to manage PFAS more comprehensively.

The Australian defence department is currently investigating 18 defence sites for potential contamination.

In late 2019, it reported findings surrounding the Amberley airbase in Southeast Queensland finding “health effects” from exposure to PFAS, however it could not determine any trends which differed from the general population.

The department still recommended minimal exposure to PFAS as a precaution.