Residents of a small Aboriginal community on the New South Wales south coast say they are afraid they’ve been contaminated by toxic firefighting foam from a nearby naval base.
The people of Wreck Bay, who were not included in a parliamentary inquiry into PFAS contamination, are now urging for blood tests to check if community members are at risk.
“Why can’t they go back and recommend that we all have blood tests,” says long-time Wreck Bay resident Jack Hampton.
It has been revealed chemicals from the harmful foam used at the nearby Jervis Bay Range Facility have leached into waterways through the small community, and the nearby Jervis Bay Village within the Booderee National Park, for decades.
PFAS, which stands for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals, is used in firefighting foam and has contaminated land around 26 Defence bases across the country.
Mr Hampton is an Aboriginal Elder and a former firefighter with the Jervis Bay brigade. He and fellow Elder Jimmy Williams would regularly use the toxic foam to put out fires in the area.
“We would go up to the Jervis Bay Range Facility and we’d be using the foam all the time, especially putting out oil fires,” he said.
“We would go into a superstructure [of a ship] and we’d be crawling through there with the smoke and you’d have a mask on and when you come out they would have to hose you down and we’d be soaking wet.”
Elder and fellow Wreck Bay resident Jimmy Williams suffers from liver and prostate cancer and has nodules in his throat that require regular medical attention – all of which he believes is linked to exposure to PFAS chemicals.
During a community walk-session, Mr Williams requested the government blood test him to determine if PFAS has contaminated his body.
“Here, I’m a living specimen,” he said. “Take my body, test it. See what's in it.”
Free blood tests have been provided to other affected communities in New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory. No such offer has been afforded to the Jervis Bay and Wreck Bay villages.
“I’m a typical example of what could happen if there is something in the PFAS,” Mr Williams said.
His son James Williams believes his father’s condition is no coincidence.
“I believe it’s got a lot to do with PFAS why he’s got three different cancers… it’s got to be something more than just coincidence and bad luck,” he said.
“When you look at our community we’ve got a lot of cancers, blood disorders, deformities from women before their children were even born, stillborn babies, and the government is saying, 'no this PFAS doesn’t have any effect on the human body'.”
'People just want to know the proper answers'
In January 2017, the Department of Defence launched an investigation to determine whether soil and groundwater at the Jervis Bay Range Facility was contaminated with chemicals.
The results of the department’s interim report, released on Wednesday, revealed contamination in seafood at a number of sites across the national park including the now closed Mary Creek – a main source of fish for Wreck Bay residents.
Darren Sturgeon, a Wreck Bay resident, said no signs from the department were provided to residents and tourists alike, and instead was instructed to put up signage by the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities.
He and many other residents feel they’ve been left in the dark about the risks.
“The community is very, very concerned about it,” he said.
“They’re not getting the right answers. People just want to know proper answers and not scientific answers from people who aren’t scientists. They’re just rehearsed.”
Jack Hampton says residents have received little to no health advice from the department.
“We’ve never had any advice from the Defence department, the only advice we’ve had is that they’re going to be doing some drilling for the PFAS and see where it is contaminated,” he said.
“It’s just unbelievable for the government to hold back all of this information.”
Defence spokesman Chris Birrer says the department has been open and transparent throughout the investigation.
“It’s not up to Defence and it’s not appropriate for Defence to give health advice to visitors to the National Park or members of the community,” he said.
“We have been making information available as it becomes available to us.”
But James Williams claims the government had long known about the contaminated sites and only put signs up two weeks ago.
He says the department’s warnings have come too late.
“I’m watching my father die,” he said. “It’s hard to watch him fade away like that. He was an active man, always fishing… now he’s lucky to make it to the backyard.”
For Jimmy Williams, he hopes his small community is treated the same way as others across the country.
“Treat us the same as all these other places… we should be included in any inquiry into the effects of PFAS.”
A full report of the department’s investigation is expected to be handed down in the first quarter of next year.