Bullsbrook locals feel like ‘forgotten victims’ of toxic PFAS firefighting foam contamination


Posted

October 20, 2018 09:39:26

The people of the semi-rural hamlet of West Bullsbrook, north-east of Perth, call themselves the forgotten victims of a national chemical contamination scandal.

Key points:

  • Firefighting foam used on RAAF bases found to contain toxic chemical PFAS
  • The chemical contaminates waterways as it leaches into the ground
  • Residents living near RAAF bases where it was used now want compensation

Through no fault of their own, many of them have been forced to use bottled water to drink, cook, wash dishes, water their gardens and even bathe their children for two-and-a-half years.

At least one resident has had their house sale fall through, and another has seen their property value plummet — all because their bores have been contaminated with toxic chemicals contained in firefighting foam, which leached from Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Pearce air base.

They have demanded that the Department of Defence either provides them with a safe water supply or buys their houses so they can leave the contamination zone.

They have labelled themselves the “forgotten people” of a federal parliamentary inquiry into contamination by the perfluorinated chemicals, or PFAS, on defence bases — which has held public hearings in Oakey in Queensland and Williamtown in New South Wales, but not Western Australia.

‘They’ve polluted our land’

West Bullsbrook has a population of about 200 people, but its residents have said the impact of the contamination was just as devastating as in communities like Oakey and Williamtown, which have been in the national spotlight.

Small businessman Colin Butland grew up in West Bullsbrook, as the son of a firefighter stationed at Pearce, and bought his father’s house there five years ago not knowing about the contamination.

“We used to play in the foam,” he said.

“It was just like a soap. It was sticky. It did have a little bit of a smell but other than that it was fun. Like snow, I suppose.”

Like many locals, Mr Butland was also attracted to the area’s easy lifestyle, with lots of space for vegetable gardens and chickens, and bores to meet his water needs, which meant no water bills or rates.

While tests of his bore showed it was within the Federal Government’s guidelines for safe drinking, he was worried it could become contaminated because of the way the chemicals moved through groundwater.

He does not let his children — Duke, 3, and Piper, 1 — eat fruit from his garden or eggs from the chickens.

He and his wife Nicole put a halt to their home renovations because they did not see the point in investing in a property which was losing value.

They drink and cook with the department-supplied bottled water, which is delivered fortnightly.

“They’ve polluted our land. We need answers,” he said.

Difficulty selling contaminated properties

The ABC has spoken to many other West Bullsbrook residents who believed it was unfair the department’s use of the chemicals had left them with contaminated bores and properties that are hard to sell.

They were scared of speaking out for fear it would jeopardise their hopes of getting any solution to their problems from the department.

One property owner described how his house sale fell through after the buyers learnt the water in its bore was not safe for drinking.

While he did not have a problem with the chemicals in the water — “I still drink straight from the tap” — he was extremely stressed that he could not sell his house.

He and his wife had used the equity in the Bullsbrook property to buy their retirement home, and were now left trying to service two mortgages.

His real estate agent, Gail Woods, said it was frustrating that she could not tell potential buyers when there would be a safe water supply in West Bullsbrook.

“The offer was unconditional,” she said.

“Defence made a phone call to me and told me that the water contamination level was too high to make it drinkable water.

“I put them in contact with the buyer and unfortunately the buyer pulled out, and my seller is in limbo.”

A submission by the Bullsbrook Residents and Ratepayers Association (BRRA) to the inquiry told of another resident whose bore was deemed to have safe levels of contamination, but whose property had still dropped in value.

“I thought I was okay with my yellow envelope from Defence, nothing over the recommended health levels in my bore,” the submission said.

“Went for a loan and got told your [sic] in a groundwater contamination zone.

“My house value had dropped by $80,000.”

Calls for proper compensation

Some studies have linked the chemicals to a range of human diseases, but the Federal Government’s formal advice is that there is “no consistent evidence” they caused specific illnesses.

The firefighting foam containing the chemicals has polluted groundwater and surface water, as well as soil, around at least 18 defence bases across Australia.

The ongoing uncertainty over the safety of their water had made residents “stressed, anxious and concerned for the future”, according to the BRAA submission to the parliamentary inquiry.

The submission said the impact of contamination was particularly hard for West Bullsbrook residents because they were not connected to scheme water, and PFAS contamination had been detected in bores, soil and eggs.

It called for the department to provide them with access to scheme water, rainwater tanks, or to deepen their bores.

“Through no fault of their own, local residents are suffering the negative lifestyle, health and financial impacts of Defence’s actions,” it said.

“Yet other than the supply of bottled water for drinking and cooking, nothing else has been offered to address and compensate for the effects of PFAS contamination on their lives.”

BRRA president Anne Sibbel said it was time for a solution so people could feel that their families were safe.

“It’s great Defence has [sic] supplying people with bottled water, but you can’t bathe your baby in bottled water for two-and-a-half years.”

Defence said in a statement that it was not considering land purchases but was looking into long-term water options for residents.

Topics:

defence-forces,

defence-industry,

water-pollution,

water-supply,

water-management,

environment,

community-and-society,

bullsbrook-6084,

perth-6000,

wa



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