The Northern Territory government has accused the Commonwealth of “shifting the goal posts” in denying blood tests to people in Katherine affected by the defence department’s firefighting foam contamination scandal.
Drinking water in the town of Katherine, 300km south of Darwin, has been contaminated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (Pfas), which some studies have linked with cancer and other illnesses.
The same chemicals have contaminated water in the town of Williamtown in New South Wales and Oakey in Queensland. “People here feel like they’re being treated as second class citizens,” said Sandra Nelson, the member for Katherine in the NT parliament.
In both Williamtown and Oakey, the federal government provided voluntary blood testing for residents affected by the contamination, but in Katherine, Defence has so far refused multiple requests for the same treatment.
On Thursday during question time in the Senate, Malarndirri McCarthy, the Labor senator for the Northern Territory, asked the Defence Minister, Marise Payne, why blood testing had not been made available in Katherine.
Payne said that in NSW and Queensland the government had waited until the completion of human and ecological testing and then “assessments were made by the health authorities – not by Defence – in relation to the provision of blood tests”.
“Defence does not hold itself out as a health expert in this matter at all,” she said.
But those comments contradict the government’s previous decisions on blood testing.
Josh Aylward, a solicitor with Shine Lawyers, the firm representing Oakey residents in a class action lawsuit against the government, said blood testing in Oakey and Williamtown had been conducted before completing health risk assessments.
“As they should have, the community shouldn’t be left in the dark knowing these chemicals are in their system. It’s ridiculous,” he said.
In Williamtown the defence department initially resisted blood testing based on advice from the NSW health department, which still maintains that testing has “no current value” in either diagnosis, treatment or prognosis.
But the on 14 June last year, a month before it handed its draft Williamtown health assessment to the NSW Environment Protection Authority, the government announced it would fund blood testing as part of a wider epidemiological study.
At the time the government said it was still “investigating the potential risks to human health, the environment and the ecology from the use of legacy fire fighting foams at RAAF Base Williamtown and Oakey Army Aviation Centre”.
Guardian Australia understands the EPA received its final Williamtown health study only this week.
Sandra Nelson, the member for Katherine in the NT parliament, questioned why Defence had listened to the health department in NSW but not the NT, and said the government was “shifting the goal posts” on the issue.
“One of the very first questions I asked [when the contamination became public] was what protocols have you followed in Williamtown and Oakey and will you be doing the same in Katherine,” she said.
“People here feel like they’re being treated as second class citizens, which goes along with the way the federal government has been treating Territorians as a whole.”
That feeling has prompted a desire from some in Katherine to take action against the government, and on Thursday night Aylwood hosted a meeting in the town to gauge interest in establishing a separate class action where more than 200 people attended.
“The people in Katherine feel left out and forgotten,” he said.
“The Department of Defence thinks that they aren’t mature enough to not whip themselves into a frenzy when they find out they have Pfas in their blood.
“It’s not appropriate, people in Katherine and other communities are mature enough to understand what it means for themselves.”
He said the mood at the meeting was “hopeful”.
“Because all of a sudden they realised that there’s a way that they can have their voice heard,” he said.
The Defence Minister has been contacted for comment.
Source: The Guardian