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PFAS settlement for Richmond residents

May 15, 2023

Richmond landowners are part of a $132.7 million class action settlement with the Federal government over contamination by toxic PFAS chemicals around eight airforce sites across the country

PFAS (a family of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are also known as forever chemicals, due to the fact that they do not deteriorate over time. They were used by RAAF in their fire retardants across the country, including at Richmond RAAF base.

The suit alleged that the Commonwealth did not adequately prevent toxic chemicals from fire-fighting foam contaminating soil and groundwater at seven sites around Australia.

Still, questions remain about the real extent of PFAS contamination in the Richmond area including a recent move by the Western Sydney University Hawkesbury campus to abandon a  planned Centre of Excellence for Agriculture Education after PFAS was found on the site. This recent discovery is outside the designated area of management although at this stage the Education Department is blaming the levels of PFAS on landfill.

There are also unanswered questions of just how much each of the 30,000 or so complainants will receive.

“When I first heard I was quite pleased at least it’s an acknowledgement but when you divide it up between the people a straight division of about $4,000 per person. But some will get more than others,” Joanna Pickford who started the Hawkesbury PFAS Community Network and Facebook page.

“I doubt whether I will get very much at all and I have spent $17,000 of ny superannuation to clean up my land so people including my grandchildren can use it, so they can’t get to the soil and get contaminated. I can no longer free range my chickens or plant vegetables in most of the garden.”

Pickford said that directions to the news of the contamination which first came to light in 2018 had varied.

“A couple of people sold once they learned about the contamination and other people are pretending that it isn’t happening. But people are not required to tell people under the law and Hawkesbury Council certainly doesn’t want people talking about it as it harms property values.

“I approached the council but they never got back to me,” Pickford said.

The multi-site class action by law firm Shine Lawyers on behalf of about 30,000 Australians was due to begin a six week hearing in the Federal Court in Sydney Monday. The settlement must be ratified by a judge. Once that has occurred, claimants will begin to receive information about their payouts.

The class action was also on behalf of landowners in Wagga Wagga (NSW), Wreck Bay (NSW), Wodonga (VIC), Darwin (NT), Townsville (QLD), Edinburgh (SA) and Bullsbrook (WA) to compensate them for significant drops in property prices.

PFAS has been linked to cancer and last year the Environmental Protection Authority in the US said these chemicals pose a greater danger to human health than previously thought. Australian authorities have been much slower to come to terms with the damage that PFAS causes.

The settlement came only days after a new report from Swedish NGO ChemSec was previewed by The Guardian. It said that the societal costs of PFAS globally amounted to US $17.5 trillion ($2.54tr) annually. At the same time,  the chemicals yielded about US$4billion annually for the world’s major PFAS manufacturers.

ChemSec found that 12 companies account for most of the world’s PFAS production and pollution including 3M, Chemours, Solvay, Daikin, Honeywell, BASF, Merk and Bayer. So far only 3M has announced it would stop producing PFAS, in part because of regulatory pressure and litigation.

The report is expected to be released publicly within the next few weeks.

It is also unclear now much of the settlement will be taken by Shine which has gained a reputation for swallowing considerable amounts of its class action settlements.

Last year, Shine aimed to take almost $100m in fees for its successful pelvic mesh class action against Johnson & Johnson (Ethicon) on behalf of 11,000 women that scored a $400 million settlement. Shine’s claim included prompting the court to order the distribution of the proceeds to be put out to tender.




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