2018 August – Class Action (Katherine Northern Territory) – PFAS

Class action launched against Department of Defence over PFAS exposure in Katherine

Every resident of the Northern Territory town of Katherine will be included in a class action against the Department of Defence over widespread PFAS contamination.

Key points:

  • Shine Lawyers say PFAS chemicals have been adversely affecting the wellbeing of residents
  • It will seek compensation for Katherine residents as part of a class action
  • It expects the Department of Defence to file a defence within months

PFAS was a chemical used in firefighting foam on Defence bases up until 2010, and a Defence Department risk assessment showed the chemical seeped into waterways and soil in the Top End.

Since it was revealed the chemicals had leached into the environment and residents’ blood streams from the RAAF Base Tindal, the residents of Katherine were offered alternative drinking water and blood tests.

Special counsel for Shine Lawyers Josh Aylward told ABC Radio Darwin they would be seeking compensation and damages for Katherine residents through the lawsuit, which was filed today.

The monetary value of those claims has yet to be determined.

“The key arguments, it’s really simple: it’s that the Defence Force has, since around 1987, used these firefighting foam chemicals on the base,” Mr Aylward said.

“And that these chemicals have spread throughout the Katherine community … the people of the Katherine community have been affected by this … their property values have been affected and that their businesses have been affected.

“And that Defence knew, long before they even started using these chemicals, that they shouldn’t be letting them escape into the environment.”

The class action, filed in the Federal Court of Australia, is an “open class” — which means every resident of Katherine is included.

Mr Aylward said anyone who did not want to be included would have the chance to opt out later.

In July last year Shine Lawyers filed a class action against the Department of Defence on behalf of about 450 residents in the south-east Queensland town of Oakey, seeking up to $200 million in damages over PFAS contamination.

In New South Wales, residents near the RAAF Williamtown base launched a class action in November 2016.

Mayor: ‘We know nothing about it’

Following an interview with Mr Aylward on ABC Radio, Katherine Town Council mayor Fay Miller phoned in, saying she knew nothing of the lawsuit.

Although Shine Lawyers had held town meetings about it, Ms Miller said she had been too busy to attend and believed it would have been “good manners” for the firm to reach out to the town leaders.

“They’ve come to my town. And I think they would have done the courtesy of at least contacting us and making an appointment to explain what it was they’re going to do,” she

“I just find it really strange that this would be happening in Katherine and we know nothing about it.”

Another Katherine resident called Bob who spoke to ABC Radio said he was “not particularly happy” about the lawsuit.

“I have a property, my bore is very highly contaminated, but I will say this: Defence has bent over backwards to manage the problem and as far as I know anybody with contaminated bores, they have done the same thing,” he said.

“I think we’ve got to start speaking the positives of what Defence is actually doing to rectify the problem.”

But local doctor Peter Stafford said the matter had to be “taken to the courts” to ensure those exposed to PFAS contamination were adequately compensated.

“We are left with no other option, individuals are suffering … if anyone is ignoring anything, I would say the council has ignored the plight of the people here,” he said.

“I’ve got a patient who wants to invest in his own business here and needs to get a loan from the bank.

“They said ‘what are you going to use as collateral?’ and he said ‘my property’ and they [the bank] literally laughed at him and said ‘it’s not worth anything’.”

Health effects disputed

The Department of Defence has maintained that there is no evidence to link PFAS exposure to human disease.

In May, an independent panel of health experts concluded there was mostly limited or in some cases no evidence that human exposure to PFAS was linked to disease, but health effects could not be ruled out.

Yet other countries such as the United States, Germany and England take a much more precautionary approach to the chemicals.

Shine Lawyers insists the chemical has been adversely affecting residents’ wellbeing.

In a statement, the law firm said exposure to the chemicals has been linked to immune dysfunction, hormonal interference, thyroid disruption and certain types of cancer.

“It follows an investigation that revealed that thousands of Katherine locals had been exposed to toxic chemicals, which have permeated land and water supplies, food sources, and bloodstreams, with potentially catastrophic consequences,” it said.

Shine Lawyers said it expected the Defence Department to file its defence within months.

The Department of Defence said it was advised about the proceedings relating to alleged land contamination in Katherine.

It said at this time no formal documentation had been served on the Commonwealth, but the claim would be handled in accordance with the Attorney-General’s Legal Services Directions 2017 and it would make no further public comment at this stage.