Oakey water contamination: Residents say they won’t stop fighting
By Rhian Deutrom, originally posted on August 5, 2016
A SIMPLER life is what Dianne Priddle and David Jefferis imagined when they bought their 80ha property at Oakey, on the Darling Downs, in May 2005.
After the tragic death of Priddle’s 17-year-old daughter, Cassandra Hood, in a farm accident on a property at Biloela in central Queensland in 2000, the couple decided to pursue their dream of breeding a small but high-quality herd of Charolais and Charbray cattle.
Berwick Stud would ease them into retirement and the cooler climate at Oakey, about 160km west of Brisbane, would help Priddle’s health as she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001.
Priddle, 59, and Jefferis, 58, have been together for 20 years and have three children and four grandchildren between them. For 10 years, they steadily improved the pastures at Berwick Stud, installing underground mains to water the paddocks from Oakey Creek and from bores on the property. They built new cattle yards, improved the fencing, and crafted a new four-bedroom brick home from the original HardiPlank house. But in 2014, the dream came to a grinding halt when tests revealed their property was contaminated with chemicals that had leached through the soil from Oakey Army Aviation Base, 4km away.
The chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), are key components in a fire-fighting foam called Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), which the Australian Defence Force used during training exercises at bases around Australia. At Oakey, it discharged 1.2 megalitres of AFFF between 1977 and 2003.
Days after the tests were made public, Priddle received a phone call from her eight-year-old grandson Cleveland Hood, who lives in Capella in central Queensland.
“Hey Ma, I just saw the news about Oakey,” he said. “Where are the cattle going to drink now?”
Ironically, it was a cattle farmer on the other side of the world who raised the alarm about the potential dangers of these two chemicals, decades before the Oakey contamination was discovered. Wilbur Earl Tennant was a cattle rancher in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in the east of the US, who became concerned when his cows began to get sick and die after drinking from a creek on his family’s property in the early 1990s. The Tennants had farmed the land for generations but after Wilbur’s older brother Jim became sick in the early ’80s, they needed money so they sold 27ha to a local chemical company, DuPont, where Jim worked. The company wanted the land to dispose of waste from its Washington Works factory near Parkersburg.
Soon after, Tennant began to notice mounds of soapy froth on the creek that flowed through his property. Over time he also noticed changes in his cows: malformed hooves, giant lesions, and when he autopsied them he found that major organs – kidneys and liver – were green.
Tennant tried to raise concerns locally but was blocked at every turn, as he says DuPont just about owned the town. But by chance, Tennant’s neighbour remembered a young boy who used to visit when he came to stay in town with his grandmother. He was now a defence lawyer specialising in environmental law in Cincinnati, in the neighbouring state of Ohio.
It was not the sort of case Rob Bilott would normally consider but he fondly remembered his visits to the farm, so he agreed to meet Tennant and view the videos he had made of his sick cows. He saw the cattle in various stages of decay – wild eyes with thick foam streaming from their mouths, stringy tails and staggering like drunks. Despite his firm specialising in defending large corporate clients such as DuPont, Bilott felt compelled to take the case. “It was the right thing to do,” he later told The New York Times Magazine.
Bilott filed a federal lawsuit against DuPont in mid-1999, and as the trial loomed he stumbled on a letter from DuPont to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that mentioned a substance in the landfill with a cryptic name: PFOA. With no idea what PFOA was, he obtained a court order forcing DuPont to share all documentation related to the substance. The company dropped dozens of boxes containing more than 110,000 pages at his office: private internal correspondence, medical and health reports, and confidential studies done by DuPont scientists.
It was a different DuPont scientist, however, who started this story. On a crisp April morning in New Jersey, on the east coast of the US, in 1938, 27-year-old chemist Roy J. Plunkett shrugged off his overcoat and called to his lab assistant Jack Rebok. The pair had spent months trying to invent a refrigerant gas to revolutionise the industry and this morning’s lab session, involving hundreds of coolant gas cylinders, promised to push them one step closer to their goal.
Rebok opened the valve on one cylinder to release the gas – but nothing happened. Carefully opening it, Plunkett noticed a white, waxy powder caking the inside of the container. Intrigued, he ran tests and inadvertently discovered a compound he named polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). It’s extremely slippery, non-corrosive and resistant to heat. Three years later, in 1941, the name Teflon was patented and four years after that it rolled out in industrial and military applications. By 1948, DuPont was producing more than 900 tonnes of Teflon a year in its Washington Works plant, and circa 1951 they began using another chemical known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8) to improve the Teflon.
PFOA was produced by a company called 3M, which also developed a sister compound called perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). When used in combination, PFOS and PFOA easily repelled oil, water and heat. Commercial developers hungrily pounced on the opportunity to pump PFOS and PFOA – commonly known as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) – into carpet protectors, waterproof clothing, fast-food packaging and even makeup.
For the next 40 years, these chemicals played a major part in consumer culture, in everything from fire-retardant pyjamas to photographic developing. The two compounds also found popular use in fire-fighting foams around the world, including Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF).
Bilott waded through the documentation he had subpoenaed from DuPont and started to build a clear picture. “It became apparent what was going on: they had known for a long time that this stuff was bad,” he told The New York Times Magazine.
From the documents he found that DuPont and 3M had been conducting unreported medical studies since the 1950s. In 1961 DuPont researchers found that PFOA could increase the size of the liver in rats and rabbits, and in 1970 they found high levels of PFOA in the blood of factory workers at their Parkersburg plant.
Bilott discovered that by the 1990s, DuPont understood that PFOA had links to cancerous testicular, pancreatic and liver tumours in lab animals. By that time it also had dumped 6440 tonnes of PFOA sludge into the landfill next to Wilbur Tennant’s cattle ranch.
In August 2000, Bilott called DuPont’s lawyers and explained what he knew. Unsurprisingly they settled with Tennant – but Bilott was not done. The following year, he lodged a formal complaint with the US EPA, sparking an investigation into DuPont that eventually led to a $US16.5 million fine in 2005 and phasing out of production of PFOA.
That year, Bilott also launched a class action against DuPont on behalf of 70,000 people living in six districts around West Virginia and Ohio, where the water supplies had been contaminated with PFOA. He used a strategy based on a relatively new US tort law called a medical-monitoring claim. Plaintiffs only need to prove that they have been exposed to the toxin. If they win, the defendant is required to fund regular medical tests. If a plaintiff later becomes ill, they can sue retrospectively for damages.
DuPont settled the class action in September 2004, agreeing to install water filtration plants in all six districts and agreeing to a cash award of $US70 million. Importantly, it also agreed to fund a scientific study to determine if there was a “probable link” between PFOA and any diseases. Until this point, while there were links between PFOA and disease in lab animals, there was no proven link between the chemical and health problems in humans.
The legal team convinced the 70,000 plaintiffs to use some of the $70 million cash award for blood testing – they had been paid $400 each to provide blood samples to the scientific study DuPont had agreed to conduct as part of the settlement. It took seven years, but in December 2011, the scientists released their findings: there was a “probable link” between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis in humans. Sadly, Wilbur Tennant died aged 67 after a heart attack in 2009 before the findings were revealed. He had battled cancer for some time.
The scientific findings cleared the way for any of the 70,000 plaintiffs who had become ill to pursue DuPont for personal injury. More than 3500 filed lawsuits. The first case – an Ohio kidney cancer survivor, Carla Bartlett – went to trial in October last year. The jury found in her favour and awarded her $US1.6 million ($2.11 billion). DuPont is appealing.
The second case was dismissed after a doctor changed the plaintiff’s diagnosis and DuPont settled out of court with the third case, a West Virginia man who alleged his ulcerative colitis was caused by drinking contaminated water. The fourth case went to court last month, with Ohio resident David Freeman, 56, awarded $US5.1 million after developing testicular cancer, which he claimed was caused by PFOA in his drinking water. Two more cases are scheduled to be heard this year, both women with kidney cancer.
Oakey is a small farming town of 6000 people. It is populated by many families who have worked on the land for generations, mainly primary producers of livestock, grain and dairy. Others work at the local abattoir or the stockfeed manufacturer. Oakey has been a Defence town since 1942, when the army expanded its aircraft operations from Amberley during World War II. But in December 2012, Defence officials invited several property owners to the Oakey base that would change the district forever. Defence representatives informed attendees about “localised contamination of groundwater in areas contained within the base”.
Eighteen months later, Defence wrote to Toowoomba Regional Council to advise of risks to the aquifer and sought permission to test near council’s groundwater bores. In July 2014, it again wrote to advise that the contamination was now extending very close to three of the bores, and as a precaution Defence recommended “not drinking water from any underground sources within the investigation area until further notice. This includes boiled groundwater”.
For the families who used bore water to cook, bathe, grow food and feed livestock, the announcement was devastating – many were terrified, as they had been consuming this water for years. In late 2014, Defence agreed to a request to fund a limited number of blood tests for people in the contaminated area near the Oakey base to determine their levels of PFOS and PFOA.
The Brisbane-based branch of national compensation law experts, Shine Lawyers, estimated there were 80 properties contaminated in Oakey, and 74 residents self-nominated for testing. Mapping showed that the contaminated region, or toxic plume, stretched over an area about 6km in length and about 2.5km wide, covering an estimated 24sq km, including several kilometres of Oakey Creek and hundreds of private bores. A large part of the township was uncontaminated, although the plume was slowly spreading.
After an anxious five-month wait, residents were sent their test results in the mail. The results found an average value of PFOA of 3.05 nanograms per millilitre, ranging from 0.78 to 19.21, compared to an Australian average of 7.6.
Of much greater concern was the level of PFOS. The average for the 74 Oakey residents was 69.38 nanograms per millilitre, ranging from 2.35 to a massive 381.29, compared to a national average of 21.3. The news of the contamination crisis spread around the town, raising fears about residents’ health and the value of their properties.
Devon Cafe is right in the middle of Oakey’s main street and is owned by 43-year-old Brad Hudson. The father of three has survived testicular cancer – one of the cancers with links to PFOS and PFOA. His home is 400m from the army base and he has been using bore water to shower, wash, clean, drink and irrigate his gardens for more than 15 years. Hudson’s five-year-old daughter, Amba, registered levels of the toxins in her blood at 30 times the Australian average. “It is extremely hard to close my eyes at night thinking about my family and our futures with these contaminants in our systems,” he says. “The Government seems to think we will happily sit and wait while they investigate the effects of these chemicals. I don’t think we will be alive to see the results.”
About 3km away, another Oakey resident, Jenny Spencer, 52, inspects the land she has poured her life savings into. The 2ha property was supposed to be a training ground for racehorses. “I bought the property with my partner (Chris Weise) and son in 2013, but then we got a letter from Defence telling us the place is riddled with PFOS and PFOA,” Spencer says. She now can’t get a loan to build a home on the property and rents nearby.
Spencer has started a support group for people suffering the same fate and updates her members each day with news from around the country, such as new research or policy announcements related to PFC contamination. “We need Defence and the Government to acknowledge how much we’re suffering out here and start cleaning this up for us and our children,” she says. “We’ve been ignored for too long.”
Darby Tunnah, a 64-year-old racehorse trainer, lives in a caravan down the road from Spencer on his employer’s property, as his own land is contaminated. Spencer calls him every now and then to tell him the latest on the fight. Tunnah, born and bred in Oakey, is devoted to the geldings he trains. “They’re all special to me; they’re like my kids,” he says. “When you’re not married, well, they become part of your family so if something goes wrong you feel it yourself.”
Tunnah was diagnosed with prostate cancer and angina in 2005. There was no history of either disease in his family but studies have linked both to prolonged exposure to PFOS and PFOA. “I never thought the contamination could be linked, but now it’s starting to make sense,” he says quietly.
One icy morning he noticed a frothy trail following his horse’s tail in the equine swimming pool. Tests revealed the pool was teeming with PFOS and PFOA at more than 74 times the maximum safe limit. He’s been to the town meetings and met with counsellors but he’s tired now and likes to stick to a schedule with his horses.
It wasn’t until Angela Jaeger, 40, moved from Oakey to Dalby last year that she heard about the contamination crisis in her old hometown. In June 2008, Jaeger gave birth to her fourth child, a beautiful baby girl she named Imogen Phillips. Jaeger was shocked to find the little girl’s right arm was malformed, with no hand and only two fingers.
Jaeger’s mother, Jenni Elliott, owned the Western Line Hotel in Oakey from 2004 to 2013. It was where the farmers drank, and they brought in locally produced eggs, fruit and vegetables for the pregnant Jaeger and her family.
Specialists have been unable to explain why Imogen’s arm is malformed, and now Jaeger wonders if exposure to PFOS and PFOA may be connected.
“I was completely shocked and began researching the chemicals to see if they had anything to do with Imogen’s hand,” Jaeger says. “Imogen has lived with this every minute of the day and will cover her arm so people can’t see it … She has always wanted answers. I have been battling for years to figure out how she got this, but the more I read about these toxins, the more it makes sense.”
This week, American environmental activist and Shine Lawyers ambassador Erin Brockovich visited Oakey to speak to residents about the contamination.
Brockovich, 56, has spent the past 22 years fighting for communities tainted by environmental pollution – made famous by a 2000 film starring Julia Roberts. In the past few years, Brockovich has been working with communities impacted by PFOS and PFOA in New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Colorado and California. Despite this, she has been staggered by the blood levels of PFOS and PFOA in Oakey.
“Oakey has higher blood levels than I’ve seen in the US,” she says. “The levels in (the) town are astronomical.”
Brockovich told an emotional meeting of Oakey residents that “studies are showing an association between these chemicals and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease and liver conditions. We need to take this really very seriously. We have absolute confirmation of PFOS and PFOA groundwater contamination in Oakey; we don’t have time to argue over petty things because this situation needs to be dealt with. People are sick, people have been harmed and property values are degraded. I am concerned about this community; I think that this problem is probably going to be bigger than we realised.”
In May this year, the US EPA advised exposure to PFOS and PFOA “are known to have a number of adverse effects in laboratory animals and humans”, including a risk of elevated cholesterol, developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy, liver effects, thyroid effects, and a “suggestive” link to kidney and testicular cancer. This supported a finding, also published this year, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO), which found: “Overall evaluation: Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is possibly carcinogenic to humans”.
The latest findings validate the 2002 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Taskforce on Existing Chemicals into PFOS that describes it as “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic to mammalian species” and recommends further research to “predict risk to humans”.
In Australia, as early as April 2003, the Department of Health’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) released an alert recommending PFOS/PFOA fire-fighting products such as AFFF be restricted to essential use only, and not be used for training purposes. The following May, Defence’s Environmental Stewardship, Environment, Heritage and Risk Branch prepared a damning internal memo.
“Defence uses AFFF (containing) non-biodegradable fluorosurfactants, specifically PFOS and PFOA that … have been implicated with a variety of cancers and toxic health effects in humans,” it states. “Current Defence AFFF use and waste management practices are inconsistent and generally fall below the best practice of other national and international organisations. Across many Defence facilities AFFF waste-water is not appropriately collected or disposed of. Based on these past and current practices there is a risk that PFOS/PFOA has contaminated Defence land as well as neighbouring properties, creeks, dams, and reservoirs.”
It would be eight years before Defence included monitoring for PFOS and PFOA in its routine environmental practices. The first recorded sign of contamination turned up during a check at the Oakey Army Aviation Centre in 2010.
About 860km south of Oakey is a small fishing town on the NSW coast called Williamtown. Located 27km north of Newcastle, it’s home to about 3000 people, and is surrounded by hobby farms and acreage properties. The RAAF Base Williamtown has been used as a military installation since 1941.
In 2011, elevated levels of PFOS and PFOA were reported at the base. Monitoring continued until September 2015 when the NSW EPA issued an urgent public health warning to locals near the contaminated site “not to drink their bore water”, avoid eating fish or oysters from local waterways, and stay away from locally produced eggs or vegetables that might have been exposed to bore water. Soon after, the EPA announced a commercial and recreational fishing ban in the area until June 2016, and fishers, prawners and oyster farmers are closing their businesses. The ban has been extended twice since June, with no end in sight.
About 680 properties have been contaminated by PFOS and PFOA in Williamtown. One local describes the fear among the community as never-ending. “People are pacing the halls at night. They are fighting with their spouses … people are scared,” he says. Another Williamtown local, Rob Roseworne, 52, thinks of nothing else before he goes to sleep each night. He says the whole town has been tarnished by the stigma of contamination, just like Oakey.
NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon was the first to call for a Senate Inquiry into the fire-fighting foam in late 2015 after she visited Williamtown.
“People don’t know where to turn. Farmers have lost their businesses, families can’t sell their homes and mothers are scared to breastfeed their babies in case they pass the toxins on through their milk,” Rhiannon said. “The people in these towns have been disadvantaged by their own government; it’s terrible.”
Rhiannon began collecting evidence and officially gave notice of a Senate Motion at the end of November, calling for an inquiry into all sites where fire-fighting foam was used by the Government and Defence.
The motion was passed and a committee formed a few days later, with public hearings to begin around the country the following week. The committee received 124 submissions from residents, experts and government departments – some struggling with property values or health conditions, others struggling to comprehend the scale of the disaster unfolding before them.
Rhiannon said the response from Defence to the crisis had been “appalling”.
“The Defence Department has admitted they are responsible for this pollution but have sidestepped and avoided acting for the people in these towns,” she said. “The way they chose to handle this was insensitive, grossly inadequate, and has caused damage to people’s lives.”
The Senate Committee released the first half of its findings in February this year and the second half in May – days after the Federal Budget was handed down. While commentators across the country frantically debated the merit of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s fiscal estimates, the 223-page report was quietly loaded onto the Government’s website under “Parliamentary Business”. The report was explosive – a scathing review of a culture of negligence and secrecy propagated by Defence that has left contaminated communities clouded by “fear and concern”.
“Defence’s response to PFOS and PFOA contamination has been slow and reactive, seemingly focused on limiting its liability rather than addressing the needs of residents,” the report states. “Defence knew about the likely human health impacts of PFOS/PFOA back in 2003 when a key finding of an internal Defence report on environmental issues associated with the use of fire-fighting foams was that ‘both PFOS and PFOA have been implicated with a variety of cancers and toxic health effects in humans that have had long-term exposure to products containing PFOS/PFOA’.”
The report goes on to condemn the response to the contamination:
“What is clear from the Williamtown and Oakey experience is that Defence’s failure to notify residents sooner; the lack of transparency, accountability and consistency; and the delay in addressing community concerns fuelled a sense of crisis and fear among residents.”
The committee also raised concerns about the poor response by state governments to emerging legacy contamination issues “when authorities were aware of the contamination for years and, in some cases, decades, but no action. The committee is left in no doubt that the residents of Williamtown and Oakey were let down by the tardy and inconsistent response of commonwealth and state authorities”.
The report criticised Defence’s reluctance to fund blood tests as “out of kilter with the views of residents and international experience” where blood testing is commonplace in contaminated communities.
In the DuPont case in the US, it had been blood tests and human studies that built the foundation of scientific literature and successful compensation claims.
“Voluntary blood testing of affected residents, tracked over time, could provide other valuable information,” the committee found.
The final report recommended the Government develop an immediate compensation package for affected residents, fund annual blood tests, provide free mental health and counselling support, and acquire contaminated land from property owners.
While the people of Oakey and Williamtown wait and watch their towns being affected by these toxins, they are beginning to surface in other sites across the country. Defence is investigating 67 military sites that are potentially contaminated with AFFF. In Queensland, RAAF bases in Amberley and Townsville have been assessed as “category one” sites for significant PFOS and PFOA pollution. Airservices Australia also has begun assessing 36 military and civilian airports suspected of serious PFC contamination, including Brisbane and Gold Coast airports. Rural fire stations, fire training colleges, oil refineries, cargo ships, industrial ports and bulk fuel storage facilities across the country could all be contaminated by historical use of AFFF.
While the full scale of this public health disaster has yet to be revealed, small victories have been won for the people who need them most. Buckling under mounting pressure during the recent election campaign, the Federal Government announced a $55 million assistance package to fund up to 10,000 blood tests for distressed residents, counselling, and a human toxicological and environmental study in contaminated Defence communities, including Oakey and Williamtown.
The Queensland Government last month announced it would ban all future use of AFFF in commercial and industrial businesses within its control. Businesses failing to dispose of the toxins face a maximum fine of $3.8 million or five years’ jail. Queensland Health announced free counselling for Oakey residents, struggling with their depreciating properties and illness.
Shine Lawyers this week announced it had secured the approval and funding to proceed with a class action lawsuit against Defence suing for “nuisance”. The firm represents more than 50 clients from Oakey, including Imogen Phillips’s family, Jenny Spencer, Darby Tunnah and Brad Hudson.
Shine Lawyers partner Joshua Aylward says the levels of PFOS and PFOA in Oakey have devastated businesses and properties built over generations.
“The contamination of this water and the soil, produce and livestock dependent on it … is devastating for this small community,” Aylward says. “These high readings will remain in the aquifers and the soil for hundreds of years to come as the contamination continues to spread off the Defence Base.”
He says Defence has been dragging its feet for years and the people of Oakey could not afford to be ignored a minute longer. “The longer this goes on, the clearer it becomes that Defence is not going to adequately solve this problem, and that litigation is the last path to pursue.”
In response to questions about the contamination, a spokesman for the Defence Minister says “an interdepartmental working group was established in December 2014 to address the environmental and potential health impacts of PFAS contamination. The Department of the Environment and Energy is working with Defence and other key agencies to develop interim … guidance on the management of PFOS and PFOA contamination at commonwealth sites.”
He says the Government would ensure all commitments were implemented as soon as possible.
As the sun sets over Berwick Stud, Dianne Priddle and David Jeffris sit on their patio, drinking tea. Jefferis will be up at 4.30am tomorrow to feed the cattle and his wife will follow a few hours later.
“We love the cattle and the freedom of looking out across the land to see what you’ve achieved,” Priddle says. “We chose Oakey for a clean, green environment, but that’s not what we have any more.”
A report released last month revealed the contamination will continue to spread through Oakey over the next 100 years, eventually consuming all of Berwick Stud. The thought keeps the couple awake at night.
“It’s terribly scary that we’re on the edge of what the rest of the world condemns,” Priddle says. “We’re just sitting and waiting for the Government to tell us what they’re going to do, but we don’t know what will happen to us. It breaks my heart to try and wrap my head around the fact that we will have to move one day.”
But the future hasn’t broken the couple’s resolve to protect their slice of paradise.
“We don’t want to spend the next 10 years waiting for that plume to take over our place,” Priddle says. “We didn’t create this mess, so we won’t stop fighting until our town wins.”
Like the wide-brimmed hats planted firmly on their heads, the couple – and the rest of Oakey – aren’t going anywhere.