Hearts and Minds: A Chattr Investigative Exclusive on Water Contamination in the Hunter

3 minutes to read

This is the second part in a multi-part series. If you’d like to read up on the scientific side of the scandal, go here.

It has been twelve months since the NSW EPA revealed that much of Williamtown and its surrounds were contaminated by carcinogenic & toxic chemicals from the nearby RAAF base. Since then, the federal government has committed $55 million to solving the problem in Williamtown, Oakey, and other affected areas.

This money has done little to alleviate the concerns of those living in the ‘Red Zone’.

Family Matters

Nick Marshall owns a house in the ‘Red Zone’ – the area directly contaminated by chemicals leaving Williamtown RAAF base. He and his family moved to Salt Ash from Sydney two years ago, and twelve months before the EPA revealed the extent of the contamination.

“This ticked all the boxes for us up here. We love the beach, and we love fishing and doing all those sorts of things. The plan was: we’ll fix the house up and build something we can retire in… do it right the first time, and we’re gonna be here for the next fifty years,” he said. “For one point in our life we’d actually gotten in front.”

The Marshalls believed that they would not be affected by the contamination because they didn’t keep chickens or eat produce from their own garden. While they were concerned that there might be some risk posed by the bore water Nick and his sons used to wash their trucks, a NSW health advisor said that it would be minute.

Nick’s blood work shows PFOS/A at elevated levels in his bloodstream. The property that he and his family spent so much time and money restoring is also contaminated. They were refused a loan against the value of the house – a house that they own in its entirety, with no mortgage.

“Things started off very slow. Everyone sort of sat back and waited. You know – ‘they’re gonna fix this’. And time went by, and they did nothing and still have done nothing, which is most disappointing.”

Nick Marshall in his Salt Ash home.
Nick Marshall in his Salt Ash home. Photograph by Jordan Bell.

Many of the Red Zone’s residents have found themselves bound to their properties, unable to leave and running their businesses at a loss. The Marshalls’ primary source of income is transporting Department of Defence vehicles to auction. Since the extent of the contamination was discovered, they have had to let a driver go. One of their trucks, in need of a new engine, sits dormant up the road. Defence is unwilling to finance loans to small businesses because they have not been directly impacted by the contamination.

“They’re saying ‘we haven’t stopped people from coming, we haven’t stopped you from trading’… The laughing part is that a hundred thousand bucks back then (2002-3) would have fixed this entire issue. It would’ve dispersed, it would’ve gotten away. Probably right now we’d