WILLIAMTOWN residents are “fully aware” a class action launched against the Department of Defence will fall “well short” of resolving issues they face from toxic firefighting chemicals.
In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the federal government’s handling of the contamination, lawyers representing the community said, even if they win, monetary compensation will not address the issue.
Dentons Australia lawyers, representing more than 400 ‘red zone’ residents and business owners, said its clients wanted to be in the same position they were in before the contamination occurred.
“Full and proper compensation extends well beyond mere monetary compensation that the class action can provide...,” the submission said.
“Defence’s responsibility to take appropriate action extends far beyond the economic loss that is being sought in the Williamtown class action.”
During a public hearing in July, Defence conceded responsibility for putting the per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS) “into the ground” and admitted it was unable to stop their spread from Williamtown RAAF Base.
The lawyers’ submission said any resolution of the class action would not halt the spread of the contamination or provide regular health checks for the community.
It stressed that residents want a buy-back scheme for people wishing to leave the red zone, a remediation plan and fair compensation for losses suffered beyond the quantifiable economic loss claim made in the class action.
They also want the government to extend the scope of its epidemiology study.
“It is important for the committee to understand that even if our clients are entirely successful on all claims against Defence in the Williamtown class action, this will only result in a monetary payment to our clients for the economic claims pleaded by the class members,” it said.
“We do not act for all Williamtown residents.”
The submission pointed to “larger legislative issues” that need addressing, including the lack of a federal environmental watchdog and whether this contributed to inaction on the Williamtown contamination.
“The responses to the Williamtown residents were consistent and clear: Defence has failed to adequately respond to the community and has failed to take responsibility for the claims arising from the contamination in and around Williamtown...,” the submission said.
“We principally make this submission to bring to the attention of the committee on behalf of the Williamtown community that the resolution of the issues faced by those residents extends far beyond the scope of the claims in the class action and those members of the community who we represent.”
The submission set out that prior to lodging the class action, Dentons sent a letter of demand asking Defence to provide residents with proposals on “compensation for their losses” and a “clear remediation” plan.
Dentons’ partner Ben Allen urged Defence to take the opportunity to avoid litigation and placing “further stress and anxiety” on the members of the class action, whose properties have been contaminated by chemicals used in firefighting foam at the RAAF base for around 40 years.
Mr Allen accused Defence of continuing to use the firefighting foam for more than a decade after it was informed the chemicals were persistent in the environment and potentially hazardous to human and animal health.
According to the submission, Defence responded several days later stating the matters raised in the letter of demand required “whole-of-government consideration” and it was not in a position to respond.
“No attempt was made to engage in any aspect of the proposed scheme and the class members felt that they were left with no choice but to pursue their claims through the courts,” it said.
“At the date of this submission, nearly three years since the public announcement of the contamination, Defence has still not addressed the concerns of the Williamtown residents or the class members, nor properly addressed the contamination caused by the use of AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam) at the RAAF Base Williamtown through remediation or appropriate compensation.”
The Dentons’ submission stressed that comments made by Defence during a public hearing held in Williamtown in July were “plainly and strikingly at odds” with previous public statements. This included the revelation that it was Defence policy that AFFF would still be used at Williamtown.
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