A retired air force doctor from rural Queensland is the first Australian to receive a compensation payment from the federal government as a result of legacy contamination from toxic firefighting foams used by the defence department.Eric Donaldson, 83, from the town of Oakey, about 150km west of Brisbane, reached a settlement with the government after groundwater at his property was affected by per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, a group of [fluoride] chemicals found to share a probable link to cancer.
Donaldson told Guardian Australia on Wednesday he was “gratefully relieved” and hoped that “some of the anxiety that this whole thing has caused will soon be laid to rest”.
PFAS contamination has affected dozens of towns and regions across Australia, most notably Oakey, Williamtown near Newcastle, and Katharine in the Northern Territory.
In most cases the chemicals have leached from defence bases – where they were used for decades as a fire suppressant – into nearby waterways, accumulated in residents’ blood, destroyed the local fishing industry and sent property values tumbling.
In 2014 residents in Oakey were the first in Australia to be told by defence officials that contamination from the base had leached into the surrounding area.
Donaldson played a key role in bringing the issue to the town’s attention.
After a defence official told a public meeting in Oakey that the contaminants were the “new asbestos”, Donaldson arranged for blood testing on a small sample of the town’s residents as a way of calming residents’ fears.
But the results found a “statistically abnormal” concentration of the chemicals, in some cases between 30 and 60 times the Australian background level.
Donaldson, who has been critical of media coverage of the issue because of the “anxiety” it has caused in the town, said he sought compensation over the loss of value on his property, which adjoins the Oakey aviation base.
“The whole town has been greatly affected by the anxiety the whole thing has created but it’s a great town and the people are resilient,” Donaldson said.
“Hopefully this gives some the other people who are affected some comfort that the thing will be dealt with.”
The Donaldson compensation comes as other affected residents – including from Oakey – prepare for a major class action against the government, set down for a 20-week trial starting 12 August in the federal court.
The firm running the class action, Shine Lawyers, welcomed the compensation payment to Donaldson. But Shine’s special counsel for class actions, Joshua Aylward, said it was disappointing the federal government only saw fit to compensate one small claim, despite two Senate inquiries recommending payments to all affected landowners.
“We hope this signals a change in the commonwealth’s attitude, however we’re not holding our breath,” Aylward said.
“If the commonwealth thinks that throwing around a few handfuls of peanuts is going to placate the residents of these communities, then they’re going to be sorely disappointed.”
He said the decision to compensate one individual while not dealing with other claims had only “served to enrage the thousands in those affected communities”.
The Department of Defence has been contacted for a response.
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