Traditional owners class action wreck bay
01 February 2021
Indigenous Australians whose land was "negligently" contaminated by the historic use of toxic firefighting foam on the South Coast of New South Wales have filed a class action against the Department of Defence.
The substance, known as PFAS, leached into the soil and waterways, damaging culturally significant sites in Wreck Bay, negatively impacting the value of the land.
“Shine Lawyers has filed the action in the Federal Court on behalf of the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community," said Class Actions Practice Leader Joshua Aylward. This will be the fourth PFAS Class Action filed against the Commonwealth by Shine Lawyers.
"Our claim will allege that the Commonwealth negligently allowed contaminants within the fire-fighting foam to escape from the HMAS Creswell and the Jervis Bay Range Facility bases, which has considerably impacted the value of the surrounding land, and adversely affected the community’s connection to country," Mr Aylward said.
“The people of Wreck Bay have been living in the South Coast region since before British settlement and as a result of this contamination, locals fear that the next generation will lose a spiritual connection to the water and land, that has been cultivated there for hundreds of years,” he said.
The Indigenous group in this ecologically and culturally rich environment regard the inland waters, rivers, wetlands and sea as something intimately attached to their homes and properties.
The Australian Defence Force commenced a detailed site investigation at HMAS Creswell and Jervis Bay Range Facility in March 2017, with the results detecting PFAS in surface water, groundwater and sediment around the base. The report found widespread PFAS contamination in groundwater both on and off-base, exceeding health-based recommendations for drinking water.
“In 2018, a Parliamentary Inquiry into PFAS contamination recommended that compensation be paid to people living on land contaminated by PFAS from defence sites, but the Wreck Bay community hasn’t seen a dollar, and probably won’t without legal intervention” said Aylward.
Local man gives up job to defend “God's country”
James Williams who has lived in Wreck Bay on and off for forty nine years, has given up full-time employment to pursue this class action.
“I’ve put everything on hold to make sure that my community and I, see justice,” he said.
He is currently fathering eight children with his partner (four of his own), and he mourns the fact that these children, will never know the land as intimately as he has, over almost half a century.
“You have to take into consideration our cultural background and how we connect to the land, no money will compensate us for the loss of this spiritual connection.
“We look at the land like it’s our mother and you know everyone has great respect for their mother. We can’t just pack up and move to another area and replace her. She is sacred.
“The history within Booderee National Park goes back thousands of years, before any white man came here. When your identity is taken away from you, you are nothing. You have nothing left.
“People come to our land and call it God’s country because it’s so beautiful. The Government has just crucified our country.”
“The land will give you back what you give it. You have to give it your respect and the Government has poisoned it with PFAS instead,” said Williams.
PFAS are a class of harmful chemicals used by the Department of Defence for around 40 years from the 1970s in firefighting foam. The chemical does not naturally break down and is known to accumulate in the body, leading to high concentrations over time. PFAS soil and groundwater contamination can lead to high levels of the chemical in drinking water, plants, animals and people.
While the health impacts of exposure to PFAS are still being researched, many PFAS experts have linked the toxin to various diseases, including cancer.
About the class action
The class action, Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council & Anor v The Commonwealth of Australia was filed in the Federal Court in Sydney
It is believed approximately 500 indigenous locals have been impacted by the contamination
This is a Shine Lawyers funded action
The class action is claiming three types of loss caused by the PFAS contamination: loss in property value, inconvenience, distress and vexation; and cultural loss.
This is the fourth PFAS-related class action, for a tenth community, to be filed by Shine Lawyers
The investigation for Wreck Bay follows the successful class actions for Oakey and Katherine by Shine Lawyers against the Department of Defence, for the contamination of soil and groundwater which led to the decline of property values.
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