THE Department of Defence would welcome the appointment of an independent body to govern its handling of the ongoing contamination scandal caused by fire-fighting chemicals still spilling from Williamtown RAAF Base.
Defence came under heavy fire for its handling of the environmental disaster at a one-day hearing held at Williamtown on Tuesday as part of a parliamentary inquiry into poly- and per-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] contamination in and around military bases.
Residents and community groups detailed a litany of complaints about Defence’s handling of the pollution scandal, calling for another authority to take charge.
In a string of stinging rebukes, Defence was accused of telling “half thruths”, “only looking after themselves”, lacking accountability, being “negligent”, having a “revolving door” of staff, repeatedly failing to meet agreed deadlines, issuing confusing and complicated advice, not listening, giving residents “the run around”, failing to act and being “nothing short of a national disgrace”.
Port Stephens Council added its weight to the criticism calling for an independent body to step in and take control of the “current inadequately managed situation”.
Williamtown and Surrounds Residents’ Action Group president Cain Gorfine labelled Defence a “slow moving behemoth” that had “rolled straight over” the red zone community.
“Help us awake the behemoth from its hibernation and give us back our future,” he said. “If you can’t awake them, get on with business without them.”
Fullerton Cove resident Justin Hamilton said Defence needed to step aside so a project management plan could be implemented. “Remove the polluter from the process,” he said. “It beggars belief that they are still involved.”
Coalition against PFAS president Lindsay Clout continued the attack, calling on the federal government to “step up” and “take control” from Defence. “Underpinning all of this is the inability of Defence to deal with this problem,” he said. “Defence are too proud to tell them [the government] they can’t fix it.”
Defence deputy secretary Steve Grzeskowiak and assistant secretary Chris Birrer admitted the fallout from the contamination could have been handled better.
Mr Grzeskowiak said he could not undo the past, but claimed Defence had learnt from its mistakes and “we try to be as open as we can”.
“If there was an appointed entity given authority to instruct Defence what to do next, I would have no problem with that at all,” Mr Grzeskowiak said.
He told the inquiry that Defence was already following advice from the NSW EPA. The EPA does not have regulatory jurisdiction over the Commonwealth, leaving it without the power to enforce compliance action both on and off the RAAF base.
There are calls for the introduction of a federal watchdog to oversee Defence on Commonwealth land.