PLANNED construction work on the national broadband network has ground to a halt for some Hunter suburbs amid safety concerns for workers needing to dig in the Williamtown ‘red zone’ contamination area.
Port Stephens residents were informed last week that delivery of the nbn had been delayed to some areas by up to 18 months due to the need for workers to negotiate the contamination zone around Williamtown RAAF Base.
nbn local confirmed it was seeking advice from the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and consultants Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) on how to deal with the risk posed by toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS).
Head of nbn local NSW Amber Dornbusch said the community would be advised of its plans for the contamination zone before any work started.
“At this stage, investigation activities only are occurring in the Williamtown Management Area: such as scoping, proving capacity in the existing telecommunication pit and pipe network, soil tests, and inspections,” she said.
“We are working with the relevant departments and agencies, including the EPA, to finalise our plan for the nbn network rollout in the Williamtown Management Area.”
Tanilba Bay’s Robyn Cragg, who attented an nbn community information session at Lemon Tree Passage Bowling Club last week, said residents were informed their connection needed to pass from the exchange at Medowie through the contamination area at Salt Ash.
“They told us it was an extremely sensitive area due to the PFAS contamination and there was a lot of talk about pits and pipes and figuring out how to get the cabling through there,” she said.
“So the PFAS area is not dangerous to anyone who lives in it, but it seems the nbn is concerned about its workers having to dig in the area. The government is lying to the people who live in that area every day.”
News of the safety concern for nbn workers came in the same week as the Department of Defence issued a report that revealed the toxic chemicals from the RAAF base pose a "potentially unacceptable risk" to plants and animals in the contamination area and surrounding waterways.
The report found contaminated soil and surface water across the contamination zone was threatening plants and animals.
An nbn contracted construction worker, who asked not to be identified, said there was “no way” workers would be prepared to dig in the contamination zone unless they were certain it was safe.
“The water table is so high in some of those areas, there are a whole host of things that would need to be put in place before you can just charge in there with machines digging the place up,” he said.
“You need to make sure the workers are safe and that what they are doing is not making the contamination worse for the residents in the area.”
Fullerton Cove resident and Coalition Against PFAS president Lindsay Clout said he unsuccessfully tried to get answers some time ago about why the nbn rollout had stopped at Fern Bay.
“The nbn was charging down the road like a locomotive and then it just stopped,” he said.
“Now we understand what the issue is. I wouldn’t want to be a worker digging in it either. It begs the question about residents living here and also all the development at the [RAAF] base.”
According to the nbn website, connection is due in the red zone from July to September next year.
But Ms Dornbusch said the dates provided on the rollout map were indicative only.
“We ask the community for its patience as we make the transition from the old to the new network,” she said.
Ms Cragg, who runs an Australia-wide teaching business with her wife from their Tanilba Bay home, described their internet connection as a “nightmare”.
She regularly travels to Charlestown to the Apple store to download large files.
“It costs $390 a month for me to get any form of internet in this area,” she said. “It falls out, falls out, falls out. If you try to have an online meeting it just drops out.
“Another 18 months wait is certainly far from ideal, especially when we were told it would be switched on between January and March and that is still what is says on their website. But I really feel for the poor people living in the PFAS area. If it’s not dangerous, why are they concerned about nbn workers digging in the area. It’s hypocritcal rubbish.”