In almost one hundred residential areas around Australia, potentially toxic compounds have been contaminating the soil. The poison spilled into the ground due to runoff from RAAF bases, which extinguish on-site fires using what’s known as poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS for short). For decades, the foam has run down the concrete runways and into the soil, pluming beneath suburbs from Sale to Williamtown to Darwin.
PFAS are a family of chemical compounds notorious for lingering in an environment without breaking down. Their effects on the human body as a result of long-term exposure have only begun to be thoroughly investigated over the last few years. As the compounds have become linked to organ failure, Alzheimer’s risk and cancer, PFASs have increasingly become the focal point of several class action suits, both overseas and domestically.
In the United States, congressional hearings have been held against the major manufacturers of PFAS, who stand accused of covering up evidence indicating these chemicals were hazardous and running a campaign of denial to protect themselves once internal research revealed the risk to human beings after exposure. The three major manufacturers – 3M, Chemours, and DuPont – have strongly denied any wrongdoing. These denials have an eerie feeling once you recall DuPont’s claims that there was no danger present in two of their other products, leaded petrol and chlorofluorocarbons.
In Australia, results of a state inquiry in Victoria into possible toxic exposure at the Fiskville CFA Academy laid the blame of over 100 cancer cases among the alumni on exposure to extinguishing foam derived from PFOS chemicals, a type of PFAS. This correlates with evidence produced in the US linking plumes caused by extinguishing foams to a growth in cancer rates in the direct area.
Anxiety about contamination in rural communities following these findings brought on demands for investigations around the country. Plumes of accumulating PFASs were identified through Australia. A correlation was found between residential areas located above PFASs plumes and residential areas on the outskirts of firefighting training facilities and on the outskirts of RAAF bases. One investigation by The Sydney Morning Heraldshowed ninety-six suburbs and townships with high enough concentrations of PFAS molecules in the soil that rendered the land toxic. Farmers in Sale were advised to stop selling meat, devastating the cattle farming town. When the ban was lifted and farmers reluctantly started selling again, whistleblowers confided that since the scare they had stopped eating their own product.
The government held a quiet inquiry into the problem of poisoned Australia. Liberal MP Andrew Laming read its findings to the House of Representatives on 3 December 2018. He commented at the outset that ‘no family should be trapped on contaminated land’. This sympathy was not reflected quite as clearly in the inquiry’s nine recommendations. In particular, the only mention of health came in the fifth recommendation, which encourages the federal government to recognise the ill-effects that PFAS compounds may potentially cause. The use of PFASs would still be permitted under these guidelines. It must also be noted that the government is not compelled to enact the recommendations of the inquiry.
There are some stark implications to these recommendations. A duty of medical care is not so much as mentioned, which serves as a tactical way of implying that the cost of medical care is on those affected. Even assuming testing and treatment would be covered by Medicare – which wouldn’t be the case if you required radiotherapy for something like cancer, a the key risk of PFAS exposure –this means that someone being tested would still need a substantial amount of money to pay the initial fee before it’s returned through Medicare rebate. Other recovery and welfare efforts appear designed to exclude poorer Australians. While the government may recognise the suffering of those poisoned, it has not committed to recognising that everyone deserves an antidote. There are five recommendations stating that the onus is on the government to assist the recovery of the land. There are zero that suggest the same attitude for the people who live on it.
While none of the recommendations propose any funds for treatment, there is ample cash for landlord bailouts. Here, the true elements of class warfare within this plan shine. Say you’ve discovered the land under the house you live contains a toxin that the UN has been trying to have banned. Regardless of whether you are sick, you’ll still need to at least be assessed by medical professionals to determine you haven’t been poisoned. The government has said nothing, so you assume that’s out of your own pocket. But it’s hard to justify spending that much money. After all, you’re renting, you can barely keep yourself fed in the first place. Maybe that tired feeling is just because you’ve been going hard at work. The sun goes down and you’re still trying to rationalise spending $300 you don’t have to figure out whether or not you’ll have to spend more money to be healthy.
However, if you owned land in the area affected, you at least have the money given by the government’s buyback scheme to get you through as you try find somewhere to live in-between appointments. If you’re renting, not only will you be stuck searching for a new home while dealing with the fallout of leukaemia, but your landlord – who might not live anywhere near a zone of concern themselves – will be eligible for compensation for tossing you to the wilds.
According to the 2016 census, the village of Katherine in the Northern Territory has 217 people renting, or 50.7 per cent of households in the area. Winnellie, the Darwin suburb which houses an RAAF base and PFAS contamination, has a rental concentration of 54.5 per cent of all homes in the area, and 37.3 per cent in the area of concern by Tamworth Airport. 51.4 per cent of homes near the Townsville RAAF base. Even in Bullsbrook, WA, one of the wealthiest suburbs examined, 13.7 per cent of the 5,700 affected households are renters. These are swathes of people who have suffered, excluded from relief plans simply because that they don’t possess the capital to be homeowners. In the context of years of bipartisan attacks on public housing, or the slow chipping away at public healthcare, one can see a pattern that can only be described as class warfare.
Two years on, there has been little movement in enacting any of the policies announced. The Australian government has recognised large levels PFAS contamination as toxic, but the threshold for how much PFAS can reside in soil or water is more than double that of the EU or even the US. Restoration of land has yet to even be discussed beyond the single sentence in the recommendations. The mechanisms for a massive home buyback do not exist, with not even the most barebones plan on how such a plan would work being developed over the past two years. For the poisoned, there is no comfort, but feigned injustice spat from the mouth of a man they’ve never met one afternoon two years ago. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any progress on justice for the poisoned. It just hasn’t been led by the government.
As of 26 January, 16 of the 94 communities at risk due to PFAS exposure reached a settlement with the government as a result of class action suit. The suit involved 40,000 names and largely concerned those seeking financial compensation after their property values had plummeted. Lead council of Shine Lawyers Joshua Aylward, who ran the class action alongside US environmental lawyer Erin Brokovich, described the property owners whose land and homes were affected by PFAS contamination as trapped due to the lack of government response on the issue. His assessment is correct. Leaving would require them to sell their homes or get a loan. But no one wants to buy a house built on top of a future tumour, and no bank is willing to lend money to someone whose house has collapsed in value. Now, those property owners can flee.
Once more, the substantial population living in contamination zones on land they don’t own are left to their own devices. There is no state to save them, no legal enterprise assured of victory to fund their fight. The only option provided by the powers that solely exist for this type of catastrophe is to surrender to the elements.
It keeps happening over and over again. The workers of the Wittenoom asbestos mine were required to self-fund their escape and traditional owners were left to fix the land on their own. The residents of Kingston, Qld, were refused aid after they started falling one by one as a result of exposure to the gold mining waste the town was secretly built upon. The man who began the class action against PFAS use in the Victorian CFA died midway through court hearings, killed by a cancer likely caused by the chemical. His widow was awarded the money that should have gone into his treatment a year later. Environmental catastrophes, even those partially caused by the state, are left to be mitigated by the individual. And as income disparity gets worse in this country, more and more you will see people whose only option is to surrender to a cruel death of sickness or starvation.
The eight–month Summer bushfire season is finally behind us, which paradoxically means that further catastrophe is just beginning to emerge. The ashes of millions of former lives, mixed with fire extinguishers and retardants that most likely contain PFAS since they still aren’t banned in Australia, will flow off in the rains. The communities that were incinerated throughout NSW and VIC will have to rebuild on the banks of rivers flooded with these chemical. These have already caused massive fish kills, devastating one of the few industries that would have been viable as reconstruction commenced. They, too, have been left to wallow in poison.
As these communities rebuild, more and more people living precariously would be pushed to this town of suspiciously low-cost leases. And in twenty years, as they wonder when they picked up that meaty cough that comes as soon as they wake, and as the children who have only even known this town begin to drop, they’ll realise what has happened. Maybe by then, there will be some way out for these people. But if what stands currently persists, they’ll face nothing but to be buried in the same soil that led them to an early grave.
Image: A RAAF Titan fire rescue vehicle responds to a practise fuel drum fire in the Shoalwater Bay training area, Flickr.