Victims of toxic chemicals win battle with Morrison government

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The Morrison government will settle three class actions over the contamination of communities with firefighting chemicals, in a decision met with tears by residents who say it will allow them to start their lives over after years trapped on toxic land.

An in-principle settlement has been reached in the Federal Court that will ultimately see compensation flow for financial losses to hundreds of Williamtown, Oakey and Katherine families whose homes have been polluted by the Department of Defence.

Kim-Leeanne King with her daughter Madeline at her property in Williamtown. She was emotional at news of a court settlement over contamination of her property by the Department of Defence.

Kim-Leeanne King with her daughter Madeline at her property in Williamtown. She was emotional at news of a court settlement over contamination of her property by the Department of Defence. Credit:Nic Walker

The settlement will be precedent-setting for thousands more Australians exposed to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] chemicals in 3M firefighting foams, used for years at military bases, fire stations and heavy industrial sites.

Residents of Williamtown, north of Newcastle, say it brings to an end a five-year battle for justice after the government covered up the PFAS contamination, denied it caused health effects and refused to give residents an escape route once their homes were rendered unsaleable.

“It has defined half a decade for us, and has forever left a mark on our family,” said Rhianna Gorfine, who with her husband Cain Gorfine helped spearhead the lawsuit. “All the time, effort, tears, stress, time away from family - it has gained results for thousands of people.”

The settlement came during mediation on Wednesday and stunned residents and filtered to the United States where it was welcomed by environmental activist Erin Brockovich.

“I want to congratulate residents for never giving up hope,” she said.

Kim-Leeanne King's father was one of 50 residents along Williamtown’s most polluted road to develop cancer.

“I haven't stopped crying since I found out,” she said. “I will forever be haunted by the prospect of succumbing to either cancer or one of the diseases the chemicals cause.

“But I am so overwhelmed that we might finally get out of here. Hopefully today is the start of the rest of my life.”

The first of the class actions was launched in March 2016 and all three were set to go to trial together in April.

But a significant setback came for the federal government in recent weeks when independent referees appointed by the court delivered findings on property losses and health effects.

Professor Chris Eves found properties in contaminated zones had been devalued, while Associate Professor Nick Osborne found exposure to PFAS potentially caused kidney and testicular cancer.

Samantha Kelly with her baby William near one of the contaminated drains near RAAF base Williamtown.

Samantha Kelly with her baby William near one of the contaminated drains near RAAF base Williamtown. Credit:Nic Walker

The government fought the finding, but Justice Michael Lee found the expert report to be “sophisticated” and “scientifically rigorous”.

The Williamtown residents were represented by multinational law firm Dentons, while Shine Lawyers acted for residents in Katherine, in the Northern Territory, and Oakey, in Toowoomba.

Dentons partner Ben Allen described the result as “total vindication for residents” who had shown “tremendous resilience and courage”.

The lawsuits were bankrolled by litigation funder IMF Bentham Omni Bridgeway, which is investigating further class actions over PFAS at 16 sites, including at Richmond and Holsworthy in Sydney.

Terms of the settlement will not be made public until a court hearing on Monday.

Liberal MP Andrew Laming, who broke ranks with his own party to call for the residents to be compensated in 2018, said he was looking forward to seeing the details.

“It’s important those who desperately want to restart their lives in another part of the country have a mechanism to do it,” he said. “No doubt this does provide a pathway forward.”

But as contaminated water continues to spill off the Defence bases, there remains a long decontamination effort ahead.

"Defence sees itself as part of the fabric of these communities," Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said.

"Reaching a settlement is not the end of Defence's engagement in these communities, however, it does represent an important milestone on what has been a difficult journey for many people over the past few years."