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Toxic firefighting foam class action begins as government accused of inaction.

Summary: Residents allege contamination has spread into groundwater and food, affecting health and making homes unsellable

By Christopher Knaus, Guardian News and Media Ltd

Oakey: The federal government is in denial about the effects of toxic firefighting foam and has failed to help trapped residents move, one of the lawyers bringing a class action against the defence department has said.

Hundreds of residents living near the Oakey army aviation centre allege toxic chemicals used in firefighting foam have spread onto their land, entering their bloodstream by contaminating groundwater and food sources. Shine Lawyers, which is running the class action, alleges more than 4,000 residents have been affected in Oakey, near Toowoomba, west of Brisbane. The class action, involving more than 450 residents, has been launched in the federal court in New South Wales.

Shine's special counsel, Peter Shannon, said the position of the federal government flew in the face of international evidence on the effects of the chemicals.

"Every single scientific report is going one way and yet Defence continue to say, 'well, you can't prove this'," he said.

The chemicals - perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) - were developed in the early 1950s by the corporate giant 3M and are used to provide resistance to heat, or for dispersion, wetting and surface treatments. They have been used in firefighting foams as well as common household products such as Scotchgard, Teflon, fabric protectors and non-stick cookware.

The chemicals came to public attention through the DuPont contamination scandal in the US, which prompted a massive class action and an investigation by an independent panel of experts, known as the C-8 Panel. The panel, which finished its work in 2013, found the chemicals had probable links to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension. The US Environmental Protection Agency ordered 3M to cease production in 2000. More recently, the United Nations' persistent organic pollutants review committee to the Stockholm convention ruled that the chemicals had significant human and environmental health effects. It found them likely to "lead to significant adverse human health and environmental effects such that global action is warranted".

Defence and the Coalition, however, have repeatedly said there are still no reliable studies showing a consistent link between the chemicals and adverse health outcomes.

Shannon said the commonwealth, meant to act as a model litigant, was setting a poor example through its response. He said millions of dollars had been spent on testing, experts and consultants but nothing on helping affected residents move.

"They've spent millions, and yet not one red cent has gone to getting people who are trapped out of there," Shannon said.


He said promises from defence of compensation and action had failed to materialise and Oakey residents had "run out of patience". "People have been trapped there for almost three years now with no option," Shannon told Guardian Australia . "It is not a wealthy community, people have their life savings tied up in their homes, and they simply can't move, they're trapped."

It is the second class action launched against defence over its use of the chemicals. Residents of Williamtown, near Newcastle, launched a similar case late last year over contamination around the Williamtown airbase. Williamtown residents welcomed news of the Oakley case on Tuesday. Speaking on behalf of the Williamtown class action steering committee, Lindsay Clout predicted there would be further court action over what was "clearly a national issue".

"There is no question that this will continue to build as the scientific evidence about the dangers of PFOS and PFOA mounts,' he said in a statement to Guardian Australia.


"Rather than drag this on, Defence needs to do the right thing and take action to help the families and businesses impacted by its contamination." The two court actions are being run by different firms, but are funded by the commercial litigant funding firm IMF Bentham.

Defence is conducting or planning investigations into possible contamination around more than a dozen bases across the country. But Shannon said the firm believed contamination had occurred at 60 bases - of which Oakey was the worst - and court action was likely to arise from about 16 sites.

The defence department has been contacted for comment.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Jul 11, 2017
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