A LITTLE over a year after government authorities publicly confirmed the spread of toxic firefighting chemicals from RAAF Williamtown, the Department of Defence is being forced to account for itself in a class action brought in the Federal Court.
As many of those living in the “red zone” surrounding the RAAF base would agree, individuals have very little power when it comes to negotiating with a behemoth the size of the defence department. Despite all of the promises made at public meetings and press conferences, many of those those whose lives have been adversely affected by the PFOS/PFOA contamination are unhappy at the slow rate of progress, and the public mood has only hardened over the months.
History shows, however, that class actions can have a dramatic impact when it comes to balancing the scales of justice. The leading law firm Allens said recently that Australia was the most likely jurisdiction outside of the United States for a corporation – or in this case a government agency – to face class action litigation.
Experience shows that some of the biggest Australian class actions have been settled between the parties, rather than run to a full trial and decision by a judge. Settlements have been in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. While it is too early to predict what will happen in this case, the court has ordered the Commonwealth to file a defence by February 28 next year, refusing a request for further time.
Although as many as 18 airstrips across Australia are now being examined for PFOS/PFOA contamination, the spotlight on Williamtown will only intensify in the coming months. This is especially so, given the extraordinary levels of PFOS/PFOA being recorded in some of the blood tests given to “red zone” residents. State authorities are still advising there is no conclusive evidence that PFOS/PFOA causes specific illnesses in humans, but when a 10-month-old baby can record an above-average blood reading – three times as high as his mother’s – the community has every right to be concerned. Until now, Williamtown RAAF base has had wide support in this community: even during earlier controversies over aircraft noise, its “social licence” was never really questioned. Now, however, the PFOS/PFOA scandal is outweighing any good news that might flow from the RAAF’s operational efforts. Until there is progress on redress, that situation is unlikely to change.