New class action launched over toxic firefighting chemicals used by defence


Lawyers have launched a new class action on behalf of tens of thousands of residents over the defence department’s use of toxic firefighting chemicals.

The case will allege defence’s use of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (Pfas) had “cataclysmic consequences” for residents in Wodonga, Darwin, Townsville, Wagga Wagga, Edinburgh and Bullsbrook.

The highly persistent and probable carcinogens were used for decades in firefighting foam on defence bases, leaching into nearby land and water supplies, contaminating food and accumulating in humans.

Residents near two other military bases – in Oakey, Queensland and Katherine, Northern Territory – reached a $212.5m settlement with the federal government over Pfas contamination in February.

Residents in Williamtown, near Newcastle, were also reportedly awarded $86m through the $212.5m settlement.

The latest action, filed by Shine Lawyers, aims to compensate 40,000 residents for reductions in property prices caused by Pfas. Shine Lawyers’ special counsel Joshua Aylward said the Pfas exposure was caused by government negligence.

“In some instances, property owners have seen the value of their land decrease by more than 50%,” he said.

Pfas contamination has occurred right across the country, affecting dozens of towns and regions near defence bases, some fire stations, industrial sites and airports.

The handling of Pfas exposed serious failings in Australia’s regulatory regime. Authorities were aware of the potential risks of Pfas 30 years ago, documents suggest, but were slow to phase them out and failed to warn residents.

Documents show the US Environmental Protection Agency warned the Australian government about Pfas and its “severe, long-term consequences” to human health and the environment in 2000.

“It appears to combine persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree,” the US EPA wrote on 16 May 2000.

Defence only began a slow phase-out of its most toxic foam, 3M Lightwater, four years later.

Other internal documents suggest defence knew much earlier of the potential risks. Internal records from as early as 1991 suggest it knew firefighting and fire training at the Oakey base had “the potential to cause contamination of the environment”.

Following the February settlement, the defence minister, Linda Reynolds, said it was an “important milestone on what has been a difficult journey”.

“Defence sees itself as part of the fabric of these communities,” Reynolds said. “Reaching a settlement is not the end of defence’s engagement in these communities.”

The new class action will be lodged in the federal court, with Bullsbrook resident Reannan Haswell as its lead applicant.

Shine said the case was an open class action, meaning residents were automatically involved unless they elect to opt out.

The use of Pfas first prompted a class action in the United States in 2001, when American attorney Rob Bilott led a class action against DuPont, a chemical company, on behalf of 70,000 residents in West Virginia and Ohio.

The settlement of $70m was used to fund a vast study of the human impacts of Pfas, which collected data from 69,000 people exposed over seven years.

The study found a probable link with high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension., 16 April 2020