A federal Labor government would not commit to property buy-outs for Williamtown Red Zone residents living on Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) contaminated properties around Australia's defence bases.
Paterson MP Meryl Swanson and Opposition spokesman for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel Shayne Neumann announced yesterday that a Labor government would instead commission an independent review into land use options around the bases with a view to assisting people who have been affected by PFAS contamination.
While some residents in the Williamtown Red Zone said the announcement was underwhelming, Labor insisted the review was needed after what it described as seven years of inaction by the current government.
Among other issues, the Defence-funded review would examine alternative land uses, such as for industrial and recreational purposes.
"This is the first meaningful action that has been proposed. Sadly the government has been left lacking in this space," Paterson MP Meryl Swanson said.
"The Prime Minister has never visited the people of Williamtown and he has been to my electorate potentially six times but never sat down with the people who have been affected by this."
The Defence-funded review would be completed within the first term of a Labor government.
Two parliamentary inquiries have recommended the consideration of buy-backs as a way of assisting residents trapped on near-worthless contaminated land.
However, Ms Swanson, who is deputy chair of the PFAS sub-committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, said it was unfair to suggest Labor should automatically commit to buy-backs.
"We have been in opposition for seven years and the government has done zero except oppose our community in court," Ms Swanson said.
"Defence has never done anything on land use. We are saying we want to find out what is going on and then we can take some steps. We want to find out what are some of the things we can do with this land."
Fullerton Cove resident Lindsay Clout, described Labor's announcement as a potential 'game changer' in the seven-year PFAS saga.
"I was happy to hear that people on the ground would have some input into the review," he said.
"We have been calling for land repurposing for some time but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears."
Mr Clout stressed that residents were still living with the impacts of PFAS contamination on a daily basis despite settling a $86million class action with the federal government in 2020.
"The reality is Red Zone residents are still contaminated, we still have a red line around us. Nothing is changing," he said.
"We had two parliamentary inquiries. We have had sound recommendations from both of those inquiries and we thought that would move us forward but it's gone nowhere so I'm hoping this (announcement) will be the change."
But Salt Ash resident Rob Roseworne, who has been among those calling for property buy-backs, said news of another review was underwhelming.
"The residents understand that neither party wants this issue on their list of responsibilities, but we continue to suffer. Surely our vote is worth something," he said.
"It's seven years on from when we were first told of this issue and there has been more than enough time to Labor to have developed a decent policy.
"Labor stated in the past that it was reluctant to support a motion from the Greens for buy-backs on the grounds that it was rushed legislation. Even if that was the case then, five years have past and still nothing. Surely they are not going to give us a container of Fishermen's Friends like they tried to give the contaminated fishermen."
Despite a $100million investment to clean up PFAS contamination around Williamtown RAAF base in recent years, the Department of Defence admitted last year that contamination levels across the Red Zone remained largely unchanged.
The federal government has refused to entertain property buy-backs as an option for impacted residents around Australia.
Liberal candidate for Paterson Brook Vitnell said if elected she would fight for the appointment of a PFAS Coordinator General with special powers to monitor and provide advice on compensation payments.
She has also called for tailored support for those impacted by PFAS including increased mental health funding support and services for affected communities, more funding for research into longer term PFAS impacts and greater transparency and information for those impacted including a dedicated PFAS call line.
In addition Ms Vitnell is seeking more timely information on PFAS portals including up to date maps of PFAS Management Area Plan sites to reflect changes; information on how to access mental health services and on remediation efforts.
"I know this issue affects communities profoundly and if elected I will do my utmost to ensure their voices are heard in Canberra," she said.
The state government has earmarked some land within the Red Zone for acquisition as part of the proposed Williamtown Special Activation precinct.
Ms Swanson said a Labor government would work with the state government as part of a review into alternative land uses.
"There could be opportunities where the land is rezoned, where it becomes more valuable if it is industrial. We just don't know the outcomes yet."
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