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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
Contamination caused by firefighting foams at RAAF Base Williamtown and other sites

BAWDEN, Ms Helen, OAM, Private capacity

BUCKLEY, Mr Alan, Private Capacity

DODT, Ms Susan, Private Capacity

GREEN, Ms Vicki, Private Capacity

HUDSON, Brad, Private Capacity

JEFFERIS, Mr David, Private Capacity

JONES, Mr Peter, Private Capacity

PRIDDLE, Ms Dianne, Private Capacity

ROBERTS, Mr Nathaniel, Private Capacity

SCHMIDT, Ms Barbara, Private Capacity

SEXTON, Mr Peter, Private Capacity

SPENCER, Ms Jennifer, Private Capacity

WILKINS, Ms Robin, Private Capacity

CHAIR: We would like to ask people to take their seats again. We have a community statements session, and we appear to have a very full agenda. The committee will now have a session for members of the local community to make brief three-minute statements to the committee. This session is intended to allow some of those affected in the local community to put their concerns on the public record. Unfortunately we do not have time for the senators to ask questions, however the committee may follow up with the speakers after the session if necessary. I will introduce each speaker and invite them to make their statement to the committee. A bell will chime at two minutes as a notification, and then at the three-minute mark to indicate the end of that person's time. I will then introduce the next speaker. We are trying to hear from as many people as possible, and that is why we have the three minute space. It is the proceedings of parliament and you will be on the public record, but do not be nervous about that.

Ms Wilkins : My name is Robin, and thank you for coming. I live at 75 Racecourse Road, and I have lived down there for approximately 20 years. I have four acres and 21 stables, and I have bore and rainwater tanks. I am very worried about the high level of PFOS in my blood—I have a level of 40. I have never drunk bore water. I have a horse that has been there for approximately three years, and he has registered as 50. I have rainwater tanks also, and PFOS has been found in the rainwater tanks. The Army came and said that it was safe to drink, but then they came and drained the water and gave me town water.

I have cut out all the grapes and the figs, and I cannot grow anything anymore because the ground is contaminated. How can I sell my property, which is unique to the racing industry? I have a great bore, which is now contaminated by the Army. The price of the property has now really dropped—nobody wants to live in Oakey—and I would invite anyone on your panel to come and live in my house for a while and see what it is like to live there. Thanks.

Ms Spencer : I will read from a prepared statement, because I am, of course, nervous and would like to stick to the point. I am not a long-term resident of Oakey. I moved here in 1998 to reside with my partner, Chris William Weis, who is a long-term resident. He is a chiller assessor and meat grader at Beef City, and I am a disability support worker with St Vincent de Paul in Toowoomba. We purchased our first home together in Oakey in 1999 for $75,000. We sold that one, and we moved on to our next one, a bigger property. Of course we made a profit on the first place. This property had a small amount of land. It was equipped with a bore, which we used for watering the garden, watering horses, filling a swimming pool and keeping chickens. Oakey has always been, historically, the kind of place that enables people to live that kind of lifestyle. At that time I was working for a horse trainer in Oakey, Mr Matthew Park, and also Mr Peter Sexton in Racecourse Road. We lived in that house for around four years, when we decided to buy more land and build a house. We wanted to establish a stable complex of our own to enable me to train racehorses and provide a rescue and rehabilitation service for retired racehorses.

We purchased a four-acre block of land on the western outskirts of Oakey and began work on that property. We planned to build a small house. We had a bore put down, as there was no town water in that area. We improved on that property, made it nice, put up some good fences, some sheds, a round yard. We decided after a period of time that that area was not suitable for our purposes, as the Jondaryan Shire Council, as it was back then, were not very easy to deal with. I had done some planning and submitted a material change of use application to the council, which would have enabled us to use the land as a small stabling and horse training facility. This turned out to be not possible. We decided that we would put the place up for sale. We sold it fairly quickly, along with our house, and started searching for the perfect place. We moved into a rental house.

We had found what seemed to be that place. It was over the railway tracks in the Oakey racing precinct. It was nearly six acres and zoned rural B. This meant that the council would be leaving us alone on the amount of horses that we were going to be allowed to have on that property. It had an equipped bore which was pumping 960 gallons per hour. There was also an irrigation licence with a large water allocation allowance. This in itself is a very valuable thing. There was a large shed and an existing stable block that we could improve on. We purchased the property on Showgrounds Road in 2011. We set to work and made it into what we wanted. We got a soil test done, looked at house building plans. We approached our broker in Toowoomba and we were looking at our building finance options.

In 2014 we received the first indication that something was wrong. We had a letter from the Oakey groundwater investigation team. A Mr Mark O'Connell had written to us to inform us that there had been some concerns with the groundwater in our area being contaminated by the chemicals PFOS and PFOA, and that there was to be an ongoing investigation into this. I phoned the team immediately and demanded answers. Mr O'Connell visited us in our home and gave us an outline as to what was going on. From that day I was deeply concerned. As time went by we were involved in and attended all of the meetings held by Defence. These meetings just led to more upset and frustration, as there were no new answers ever given to us. We were also told by the company that we had engaged to value our property for the purposes of obtaining finance that our land was now contaminated, which is proved here by document, and would probably not stand up as an asset to the bank. Our broker also informed us that we should probably just sit tight and wait to see what was going to happen. He also informed us that we should not even try to purchase another house to live in at the moment, as the bank could foreclose on our mortgage at any time should they get wind of any issues.

We have had our blood tests done. My long-term partner Chris, who has been a long-term resident of Oakey, has a blood reading of 100 nanograms per millilitre for PFOS and 100 for PFOA. My blood tests were 5.7 for PFOA and just about the Australian and world recommendation for PFOS. We are now living our lives in limbo. We purchased our property in good faith. We thought that we were on the home stretch in our lives. We have worked hard for the last 17 years just to get ahead and to achieve what we set out to achieve. It all feels now like it has been for nothing. We are now living in a rented house, paying someone else's mortgage. Our personal lives are a mess. We are both suffering from depression. We continue to have our horses on our land. We cannot think ahead. We cannot plant trees. We cannot have a garden. We cannot build a house. And we cannot put the sprinklers on. We are in a dust bowl when we have no rain. I know that groundwater is not a given and that it can dry up and become inaccessible at any time. I know that in a rural setting you must have adequate tanks to cater for your water needs. We all know, historically, that after a good rain event the groundwater always comes back—but it should not come back contaminated, unsafe, poisoned and unusable. Thank you.

Mr Sexton : Hello. My name is Peter Sexton, and I live at 102 Racecourse Road, Oakey. I am a horse trainer and we carry about 30 to 40 horses on the place. They are in training, and some are spelling. Any day I will be 80 year old, and I have been living in this block for 50 years. I have drank a lot of this bore water—naturally, you drink when you are fencing and all that stuff. You have a drink out of the hose. My biggest problem is the value of our property, because my PFOS is only about 20 and I have been drinking the water and my neighbour has been drinking it. I have got horses that have tested and they are up, naturally, but I have never had a horse come to my place that has ever got sick or anything like this. I think that it has all blown up by the media. If nobody had said anything I would say that everyone would be going along the same way.

But we grew our own vegetables, we kill our own meat most of the time—calves, pigs—and I am still going. I am 80 year old any day. I am worried about my property as far as all me owners, for me business. They see this business about poisoned water and naturally they would say, 'What if the horses drink the water?' and I say, 'Well, they've been drinking it ever since I've been there, and that's 50 years.' That is my story. Thank you.

Mr Jones : Welcome to Oakey. Peter Jones is my name. My residence is situated on a 2.728 hectare block of land which is located on a south-western boundary of the Oakey army aviation base, my address being 44-46 Beale Street. The fence line at the rear of my property has a large, open run-off drain coming from the Oakey base, butting up to and running alongside my property. The drain can fill when it rains heavily. I moved here from Toowoomba 24 years ago. I came here for lifestyle reasons. Over the years I have done plenty of things with the place—I have a hobby kennel, I have a 15-kennel dog licence there; and I am involved with a few racehorses and I keep them there sometimes.

I found out about this by accident. I was never contacted first up by the army, I guess because I did not have a bore, and I found out later on that things were going on. I got up to a meeting—I went to the same meeting that Dr Eric Donaldson was at—and I heard the same things he did. They said how the PFOS crept through the soil, crept through the water, and they mentioned asbestos. The same thing. I went away terribly concerned. Anyway, my first concern after I thought about it was about my property values. As I said, I do not have a bore there. I have never drank the bore water, maybe at a place. I have got tank water. It runs off my house. I assumed I would not have any health issues. Anyway, I asked Dr Donaldson to have the blood test done and my PFOS is 129, my PFOA is 1.13, my PFHxS is 65. I do not know what these things mean, but it has got me concerned.

I am at a stage of my life where I do not need this sort of stuff. My life now is shrouded with uncertainty. I am unsure if I am living on a contaminated property, because no testing has been done. They have not come near me for anything like that. I am concerned about what the legal and financial implications are. I am also concerned about my future health and the resultant outcomes. I worked in the area for 17½ years at my last job; I have not worked for the last two years. I was at the Oakey Abattoir and before that I was at Beef City for 15 years, which is just out of town a bit. The rest of my life has been in other places, but for the bulk of it I have been in Oakey.

I have contacted Queensland Health and I have spoken to Queensland Health representatives in person, and they have no answers. This problem is not of my making. I have family to consider as well. If something happens to me, I do not wish to leave them a mess to deal with. My life has changed, and the uncertainty is very stressful and is taking a toll on my wellbeing. I do not know if I wish to remain here, but I do not have the resources to purchase a similar property elsewhere. I hope you and your fellow senators can help me. Please try and imagine yourself in my position. Thank you for your attendance today.

Ms Schmidt : I did not make any notes, so this is all off the top of my head. I live on Lorrimer Street down on the creek, just on the edge of the contaminated area. I have the unique honour of having 375 units, whatever that means, but it has not affected me. We have sheep. We have irrigated lucerne. We used to have veggie gardens, but after a couple of years in each plot they would stop producing, so we would move. But we have not eaten veggies for years. We have never drunk the water; we have rainwater. I feel marvellous. The only worry is what happens if we want to sell out. People would say 'Who wants five acres in Oakey?' It is a fabulous place to live. I would like to know (1) are 375 units going to kill me or is anything going to kill me—I mean, something will eventually—and (2) what is going to happen to the values of our property? Apart from that, I feel great. Thank you.

Ms Priddle : I have not prepared anything, but thank you for coming and listening to us today. I live at Berwick Stud on the Warrego Highway. We came here in 2005 mainly looking at our retirement. I also suffer from MS, so for us the climate was a good move. When we purchased our place it was an unimproved place and we set about improving pastures and yards. The stock we purchased were Charolais, Charbray and a few Brahman. These cattle sit in the top 10 per cent of Australian breeds. David and I do ET and AI work. Other than our bulls—because we breed seed stock for the Australian industry—most of our cattle stay on our place. We do sell off the odd female, mainly because we are retaining our genetic breeding. The house was a small house. We set about setting it up for a wheelchair. I guess we put our life savings and a little more into the place.

When we purchased it, because we came from North Queensland and Central Queensland, we valued the water that was on the place. It was not valued when we came here in 2005. So our water is a saleable item. We have a creek licence and we have a bore licence. We have a stock and domestic bore. We have rain tanks that we drink from. In probably the first six months we did drink bore water. I think we have sat in more droughts, since we have been here than we did in Central and North Queensland, bar the last two or three years in North Queensland.

David and I had a concession plan for our grandchildren. We hoped that they would be educated in Toowoomba in their secondary years. We thought we had enough land to sustain where we felt our family could go. We now sit on a block that sits with a lot of taint at the moment. I feel that, should we choose to sell—and it was not on our radar at all—I do not think we would get the money that the place deserves or that we deserve.

The other big issue that I have is that since this came onto the radar in 2014 we have lobbied our local members and David has spoken to the Army base. I find the lack of understanding and the lack of information given to us is atrocious. All I want is some answers—and quickly. The longer that this takes, the longer this township suffers with taint and contamination. If we do have contamination, something needs to be dealt to the people of this district. Our place just sits on the edge of this water plume. We have been waiting to have the updated map. I am not sure where the water is coming from, but one would assume it is coming towards us.

I would hope that this committee could make things move faster. Give us the information that we need and stop this toing and froing between state and federal. Just stop it and give us the answers we need so we can all have an informed decision process for what we are going to do. Thanks very much for your time.

Ms Bawden : I have lived in Oakey for 30 years in Stanley Street. I wish to thank you, Senators, for coming and taking the time to come and hear the people of Oakey and our concerns today. My main concern is the value of our property. Stanley Street is very close to the Army base; therefore, our property is tainted. When we bought our property we had planned to stay here for our working lives and, as we aged, the money from selling our property was to be for our retirement and move us on for retirement. I believe our property has, probably, halved in value. This is a huge concern for me and my family.

I am a full-time carer. I take over all responsibility for my husband and the doings of our lives. I have found that my health has degenerated in the last few years. I am wondering if it is because I am contaminated and this has something to do with me not bouncing back and getting better quickly after I have issues with my health. But my main concern is for the value of our property—not only for mine but for everyone else, in Oakey, in the plume area. There are a lot of us and I feel—like most people in town—that it would be great if we could be fully informed of what is going on, how you are going to handle it and how you are going to help us, because we are not getting very good information and it would be a big help to us. Thank you for coming.

Mr Jefferis : I would, first, like to thank the committee for coming up here. We much appreciate it, the people of Oakey and myself. My name is David Jefferis. I am Dianne's partner. We have a Charbray stud on the Warrego Highway. Yes, we did come here. We put everything—our life and soul and every bit of money—we had into setting up this top genetics in cattle breeding. We had an embryo and AI business too. In 2014 limbo set in. We did not know where we were going. Like most at Oakey, we were very worried.

We do not know where the future is. We sell stud stock around New South Wales, Queensland and some into the territory. We do not know if we are liable or if our clients are liable. We have asked a lot of questions. We are in the waterway that comes down through the meatworks and right through our place. We have asked for our land to get tested. We have been refused, up until now. We have asked for our cattle to be tested. We have been refused, up until now. We had our water tested last year. We have not got the written results back.

I watch Dianne, every day, with MS. If anyone, here, has ever seen someone with MS and the way it goes forward, and we sit back and ask simple questions and we get people who look us in the face and just walk away and do not give us an answer—if you do not know the answer please ask someone who does so that you can give it to us. We would like to move our stud off the land and go somewhere clean so that we can continue our business with our grandkids and with our family. We cannot do that. We cannot sell our place. We have asked for town water to be put on our place, so we can look at our grandkids in the eye and say, 'We are drinking town water, here.' We have been refused that, up until now.

What do we do? I am not far off 60 and Dianne is not far off 60. Do we just keep working? If she has MS and ends up in a wheelchair, do they want us to keep going until we are 70 or 80 or fall off our perch? We cannot get basic answers.

A question I am going to ask you is: how long before 2014 did the council know—and the Army base know—and why did they not tell us? We came here in 2005, and we put our life savings into the Oakey area. We like the area. I am sure there are people in this room and in the Army base—and probably the council too, I do not know—that knew about this is in 2005 and never bothered to tell anyone in this area what was going on. Yes, I do not have depression, but my main concern is that I have something called stress, and I have it all the time, 24 hours a day. Dianne has it too, and it has changed our lives. It has changed my family's lives and it has changed our grandkids lives. I would like you—and hopefully the senators that have come here today can—to go back and ask questions. They can answer you, and you can tell us, because they are not answering the people of Oakey. I would like to finish off by saying thank you very much for coming. It is much appreciated.

Mr Hudson : Good morning, everyone. I thank the senators for taking the time out to come to Oakey and listen to our problems. My name is Brad Hudson, and I am here today to explain to the committee the effects that high levels of PFOS and PFOA in our bore water have had on myself and my family. We were told we had one of the most affected bores outside of the Army base.

I am 43 years old, and I have lived in Oakey since the age of 10. I am married to my wife, Sharon, and have three children: Alisha, 19, Megan, 15, and my five year old daughter, Amber. As a resident of Oakey, one of my ongoing concerns is the impact that these contaminants have on our health. There is ample anecdotal evidence about the possibilities of PFOS and PFOA causing numerous types of cancers. In 2013, I was diagnosed with cancer and have since undergone a couple of major surgeries and countless visits to my oncologist and radiologist, which were all very stressful occasions for me and my family.

Since being notified of this issue, we have all had blood tests done, which have all returned extremely high levels of PFOS and PFOA. My youngest daughter has extreme levels at around 120 parts per million, or whatever they want to classify it as. Being so young, no one can tell me whether or not this will have a long-term, detrimental effect on her health. Being a parent that has experienced cancer firsthand, I worry that I could be enhancing my children's likelihood of getting cancer if we remain on our affected properties. We are still receiving daily exposure to these contaminants through our bore water and soil. I have been told by Dr Gardner from the Army base that these contaminants are extremely toxic to people, but he was unable to say what they can do. He also mentioned that he would not like to be in my position.

Having been enlightened by this conversation on the terrible toxicity of these chemicals, I am extremely concerned as a parent about our health and the saleability of my property due to the high levels of contaminants that have been detected. Also, as a racehorse trainer, there was a very negative effect on the future of my career due to the fact that some owners do not want their horses on a block that is contaminated. We, for one, do not think that it is fair of the government to subject us to these chemicals on a daily basis while living our lives on our block, all the while telling us to just have minimal contact with the contaminated water—do not drink it, do not eat eggs, do not eat veggies, do not eat fruit, do not eat meat that has been produced on your property—and everything should be okay. I feel that the government needs to do more in the way of compensation to all the people who have been affected by the Army and these contaminants.

In summary, I would just like to thank the senate committee for taking the time to attend and for allowing me to express the concerns of my family on this matter. Thank you.

Mr Buckley : My name is Alan Buckley, and I am a retired Defence Force member and veteran. I lived in Oakey for 10 years between 1988 and 1997, I think. Listening to all the testimony this morning, it is pretty emotional and pretty anxiety-filled, as you can tell. As a former Defence member that worked here, I feel partly responsible—unknowingly—for a bit of this.

I was a medic here. I worked with these chemicals almost on a daily basis. I had no idea of the consequences of what the future held, and I only found out recently about this. Pete, you were right. There is not much information that has gone out there. I only found out by pure luck and by talking to someone at a veterans' get together, and I knew nothing about it and yet I was an acting warrant officer out here at the time. I think that we should be kept in the loop as well as veterans. I have been to my local member. I live down the Gold Coast. I have been to see Karen Andrews. I feel that I wasted my time. I have a letter here that you gents can have a look at. This is the response I got from Karen Andrews, who is, also I believe a scientist. I am pretty amazed at the response I got.

I know the property and the health consequences for everyone that live in this town. I hope it all gets sorted out and I am really sad for the people that live here. It is alright for me; I do not live here, but my kids lived here for 10 years. They are now young adults; my daughter is about to get married. I do not know the consequences of what the contamination was: they drank out of the bores; they lived on the base. The house does not exist anymore. I lived in Lanefield Court, and it was a very small community. During my period here, I served overseas for a year. My kids were left here with my wife. My kids drank out of a hose like normal kids. We had a little swimming pool at the back. We drank out of the tank; the tank was refilled by the army. No-one can tell me where the water came from. So I am worried about the future health consequences for my children and of the other children that lived there, and now are in all parts of Australia and probably around the world.

There is no register for Defence Force veterans. There is a register for people that live in the local area here, but there is nothing for us. I have approached DVA and basically I have been told to pull my head in. I do not think it is good enough, not just for us. The army is giving themselves a bad name in the way they are treating the people, defending, denying and delaying everything. We need to get this stuff sorted. As you gents are aware, this is in every base in Australia that had aviation assets. I was soaked in it day in and day out in our job, and we were told that it was all quite harmless. It may prove to be, we do not know. Nobody knows. As you can tell, I am quite anxious. I just want to get a register going if we could for veterans, so in future, when I am dead and gone, I want my kids to know that I did something and I did not just sit here and shut up. I do not like confronting you guys either. I wish the good people of Oakey, good luck in all this. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. We now welcome the three remaining community statements from Susan Dodt, Vicki Green and Nathaniel Roberts.

Ms Dodt : I have lived in Oakey for 37 years of my life. As much as I hate speaking in front of people, I appreciate the time you guys are spending to come up here and listen to our concerns as a community and as individuals. As you are listening, I am sure you can understand the concerns that we all have, living here with that cloud of uncertainty over our heads with all these contamination issues. My biggest concern is obviously the uncertainty of the health implications. I married and had three children, and they all grew up here in Oakey; they all grew up drinking Oakey's water. They are all now married and they are starting to have their own families. I have two little grandbabies. One is just a few days old. That family bought a house in Oakey. Obviously, I am quite concerned about my children and my grandchildren for the uncertainty of future health problems. They do not know, at this stage. Asbestos was classed as 'all safe' when it was first brought out—and they found out all the dangers. I do not know what future implications this PFOS and PFOA are going to have on everybody's health. I have been here long-term. Even though I have a few health issues they are probably not to do with PFOS, but we just do not know. That uncertainty is, certainly, a worry.

My other big concern—like others—is the financial side of things, with my husband's and my home. We are within the plume and we are on two acres. We have halted the renovations of our house because it is quite a large house and is costing quite a lot to renovate. We think: should we be putting more money into renovations? It could be a huge waste of money. We are being told that the value of our property is likely to go down. I am waiting for the test results on our bore to come back, so I am not sure if it is contaminated or not. But I do know, from my neighbours and family from up the road, their bores did test clear, but they were also told not to use the bore. Either way it comes back, I am not sure it is great news.

The uncertainty of our future health and our financial situation does put a strain on us all that we could never have foreseen by living in this community that we have called home for such a long time. I feel the sooner we get some definitive answers, like others are needing, about this contamination the sooner we can start normalising our lives, again. Nobody likes living with uncertainty. I look forward to being able to look forward to our future as a family, hopefully with the knowledge that things are all okay, with evaluations and the contamination and health side of things. Again, I thank you guys for coming up today and I really appreciate you taking the time to let us speak.

Ms Green : My name is Vicki Green. I have lived in Oakey all my life. We have lived at our current address for 11 years. We have a bore and it is contaminated. We have put a pool in and we have been filling it from the bore. The Army tested our pool and it was highly contaminated, so they cleaned it out for us and we, now, fill it up with town water.

We have all had blood tests done and we have high levels, all of us. Our concerns are—I have a four-year-old grandson who has a level of 20. Where would he have got it from? Mine is over 100. My daughters' are over 100. We are really worried about our health in the future and our property values. Everything that my husband and I are working for—we do not know whether we are going to be put on a contaminated-land list. Where has our value gone? Where do we go? What do we do? We feel as though it has been pulled out from under us, what we have been working for. It is stressful. We think about it every day, I suppose. And it has all not been done by us. We have been dragged into it, and it does not feel good. That is all I have to say. Thank you for listening.

Mr Roberts : My name is Nathaniel Roberts and I am an Oakey resident. First, I would like to thank you for your time in hearing from us, the residents of Oakey, on this important issue. I have a wife, Stephanie, and a four-day-old daughter, Isla.

Stephanie and I bought our house in Oakey to live in and begin raising children. We bought it about 18 months ago without knowledge of the issues at hand. Buying your first house should be exciting, full of prospects and opportunity, not living with the thoughts of contamination, ill-health and uncertainty of whether your house will be worth a penny in the months or years to come. We know that buying a house is a risky business as the housing market rises and falls, but contamination should not be a factor in this. We have been renovating the property since day one, which is not cheap to do, but what is the point in continuing the renovations if the area's contamination leads to a drop in house prices? Steph has lived in Oakey for her whole life—what has been the effect on her and our beautiful daughter from exposure to the contamination? What is, or will be, the impact on Isla, Stephanie or myself from exposure to contaminated dust or from eating fruit, herbs and vegetables grown on our property? How will Isla be affected by all these things and the unknowns which continue to rise over the coming months? My daughter is my whole world, and it breaks my heart to think that she may be hurt because I bought a house in Oakey. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you for those very powerful contributions.