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Commonwealth settles $132.7 million class action over PFAS contamination across Australia, including Bullsbrook

The federal government has settled a class action over PFAS contamination from firefighting foam at seven sites across the country, but residents are calling the amount “atrocious”.

Key points:

  • About 30,000 claimants will be paid $132.7m from the Commonwealth over historic contamination of regional towns 
  • The settlement follows a $212m PFAS payout for property value loss and distress in Katherine, Oakey, and Williamtown
  • PFAS is a broad name for 4,700 heat-resistant chemicals that were found to be toxic in groundwater near air force bases 

The Commonwealth will pay out $132.7 million to about 30,000 claimants.

The claim alleged landowners at the sites were exposed to poisonous chemicals in firefighting foam used at military bases after it leached into groundwater.

The sites are Wagga Wagga and Richmond in New South Wales, Wodonga in Victoria, Darwin in the Northern Territory, Townsville in Queensland, Edinburgh in South Australia, and Bullsbrook in Western Australia.

PFAS — or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — is the broad name for 4,700 chemicals that do not break down, and instead accumulate in the soil, water, and human bodies. 

Joanna Pickford, whose East Richmond property had its soil contaminated with PFAS, said the class action had been a stressful ordeal.

“I think they’ve gotten away with murder,” she said.

“It’s atrocious, just because they’re a government body, if they were a private company they would be up in front of the EPA.

“It’s just very stressful, your whole lifestyle’s changed because I used to do gardening and grow vegetables.”

In the settlement, Justice Michael Lee told the court he was glad the “difficult task” of getting the parties to agree was over.

“I congratulate those involved, I know it’s not been a straightforward exercise,” he said.

Joanna Pickford East Richmond resident PFAS ABC News
Ms Pickford says her life a changed since finding out her property contained PFAS contamination.(ABC News)

Health of those affected top concern

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the biggest issue surrounding PFAS is not financial.

“This is another example of where we have to get occupational health and safety right, and getting it right in the first place would avoid these sorts of actions,” he said. 

“PFAS has been an issue for those around airports …  people have across a range of communities suffered from the use of this.

“The biggest concern I have isn’t the financial one, it’s the health of people affected by it.”

Payments to be made on a case-by-case basis

Shine Lawyers’ Craig Allsopp, who represented the claimants, said the outcome is a positive one, and still subject to approval by the federal court. 

He said payments will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Mick’s fire fight

For over a decade, Mick Tisbury fought to expose the extent of an alarming chemical contamination scandal. Then, with no medical training, the firefighter found an ingenious solution to help those who’d been exposed.

A firefighter in navy formal uniform shirt stands with arms crossed next to uniform cage at a fire station

Read more

“It is always a good outcome when group members reach an agreement ahead of a trial to avoid incurring the extra costs and risks of complex litigation through the court,” he said. 

“The settlement money, if approved, will go some way to compensate the seven communities in this class action for their losses, however, many are still stuck on contaminated land.

“With the group members I have spoken with the payment of compensation is recognition of their suffering.”

“We’ve obtained compensation for property value here, but obviously it’s about their whole lives and their homes, so it’s going to make a big difference to a lot of people.”

The conditional settlement has been made without admission of liability.

In 2020, the Commonwealth paid $212 million to affected residents of Oakey, Katharine, and Williamtown, who had also launched a class action over the loss of property value. 

A separate class action involving an eighth site, Wreck Bay in NSW, has been adjourned until May 29.

By Isobel RoeMaryanne Taouk, and Xanthe Gregory

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