Williamtown residents lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Department of Defence. Picture: ABC/Four Corners
Williamtown residents lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Department of Defence. Picture: ABC/Four Corners

Town where people are ‘left to rot and die’

THE people of Williamtown know that 50 residents living on one stretch of rural road have been diagnosed with cancer.

They want the Government to admit it. And to fix the problem now.

The fury of those living in the "red zone" of toxic contamination near the RAAF base in the NSW township of Williamtown, near Newcastle, is palpable.

After years of drinking the water, washing in it, cooking in it, they were finally told in 2015 it was contaminated. They are out of patience, and want answers.

And their anger has only been further inflamed by a NSW Health report saying there's no evidence of a cancer cluster caused by contamination which the Department of Defence allegedly hid from them for three years.

The report dismissing their concerns has left them devastated.

"I just want to live," resident Jenny Robinson wept, telling her story to A Current Affair on Tuesday night.

The Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group says Department of Defence contamination of private property in the area made the dream of a rural lifestyle into a nightmare.

People are leaving and abandoning their homes. "We are sitting on properties that are contaminated," said one resident, Sue, in a video on the group's Facebook page.

Jarrod Sansom's family lived there for six generations, and sold the family farm 10 years ago, before Defence admitted to contamination going back decades.

It was a lucky escape, financially. Jarrod doesn't know yet if he escaped with his health.

He feels guilty that remaining residents are stuck in the five-kilometre stretch of death and debt with no escape.

“This can be fixed tomorrow,” Jarrod Sansom told A Current Affair. Picture: Channel 9
“This can be fixed tomorrow,” Jarrod Sansom told A Current Affair. Picture: Channel 9

"The residents, the families, are being left here to rot and die. That's the truth," he told ACA.

"NSW Health's study indicates there's no cancer cluster. I don't see how that can be true considering the impact this has had on my family, along with the other 50 cases of cancer on Cabbage Tree Road in the past 18 years.

"Regardless of if there are any proven health affects, these people are still suffering from financial stress. Their mental health, their businesses, their properties have gone downhill."

'THIS COULD BE FIXED TOMORROW'

The residents can't sell contaminated properties which are worthless, they can't drink the water, and they can't expect answers until 2020 - if they live that long.

"The Prime Minister and the Government are the only ones who can stand up to Defence, and make them get the residents out," Jarrod said.

"The residents want a future, they deserve a future. That's the simple solution here. This can be fixed tomorrow."

Resident Jenny Robinson told ACA she had been diagnosed with two types of breast cancer. Her neighbour's have cancer too. Jenny wasn't included in the NSW Health study.

Diagnosed in 2016, she didn't fall into its time frame.

Kim-Leanne King's family have lived there for three generations.

Her dad died of bowel cancer in 1997.

"Fast-forward to 2015, everything here is contaminated and they announced that may well have caused his death," she said.

ACA host Tracy Grimshaw assured politicians - who declined to be interviewed - the matter wouldn't be allowed to rest. The contamination was announced it 2015, and in 2018 residents were no closer to getting answers, she said in disgust.

 

Williamtown RAAF base. Picture: News Corp
Williamtown RAAF base. Picture: News Corp

At the centre of the scandal is a firefighting foam containing the chemicals PFOS and PFOA, both of which have been linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and medically diagnosed high cholesterol in humans.

It was used at Williamtown air base for years, the toxins polluting drains, waterways and surrounding properties.

While the pollution wasn't revealed to local residents until 2015, warnings dating back to 1987 revealed the foam product must not enter the environment.

STUDY 'A COMPLETE FARCE'

The NSW Health study last month dismissed that there is a cancer cluster in the area after investigating 50 cases, saying "it "does not indicate evidence of a cancer cluster in Williamtown".

That study was slammed as "a complete farce" by residents and local politicians, because 80 per cent of the population it sampled did not even live in the contaminated area, according to which The Newcastle Herald.

Some lived up to 30 kilometres away. The study only looked at incidents of cancer between 2005 and 2014. And it did not cover people who had left the area, critics say.

Then the Cancer Council of Australia said NSW Health had done nothing wrong in the way the study - which used "reportable" data from 10,000 people, the bulk of whom live outside the contaminated area - was conducted.

Specialist in cancer cluster research and Cancer Council environmental cancer committee chairman Terry Slevin said the analysis used the smallest collection of cancer data available.

"What they've done is a perfectly reasonable and sensible first step," he said.

DEFENCE KNEW FOR THREE YEARS BEFORE IT TOLD THE PUBLIC

Last year, the Newcastle Herald identified 50 cases of cancer in 15 years in people who had lived or were living in a five-kilometre area just south of the Williamtown RAAF base known as the "red zone".

Residents of Williamstown say the problem caused by contamination must be sorted out now. Pictures: ABC
Residents of Williamstown say the problem caused by contamination must be sorted out now. Pictures: ABC

Meanwhile, the Department of Defence knew the water at Williamtown was laced with toxins for three years before it warned the public.

The environmental scandal surrounding the toxic firefighting foam used for decades was the subject of an ABC Four Corners story last October.

Defence admitted it should have warned the public about the scandal three years earlier than it did.

Defence Department deputy secretary Steve Grzeskowiak agreed Defence had erred in hiding the contamination outbreak for more than three years from the people who live near the Royal Australian Air Force base at Williamtown in NSW.

"I think if we had our time again, should we have told the community back in 2012, from the middle of 2012? We probably should," he said.

Contaminated water at Oakey, in Queensland, another area poisoned by the fire fighting foam. Picture: David Martinelli
Contaminated water at Oakey, in Queensland, another area poisoned by the fire fighting foam. Picture: David Martinelli
Residents of Williamstown hold the Defence Department solely responsible for contamination. Picture Four Corners
Residents of Williamstown hold the Defence Department solely responsible for contamination. Picture Four Corners

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