Defence has known of potential dangers with its use of firefighting foam at a Queensland army base for more than two decades, a class action alleges.
This month 450 people from the small town of Oakey, just west of Toowoomba, launched a class action against the defence department in the federal court.
For about 40 years, Defence used firefighting foam containing two chemicals now known to share a probable link with cancer and other illnesses – perfluorooctane sulfonate (Pfos) and perfluorooctanoic acid (Pfoa).
The chemicals have spread from the Oakey base, leaching into groundwater, nearby waterways and soil. Neighbouring landowners have ingested the chemicals by drinking contaminated bore water, while others used it to wash, clean or hose down gardens and livestock.
Defence began a gradual phaseout of its most toxic foam product, 3M Light Water, in 2004, and says it became aware of Pfos/Pfoa in soil and groundwater at Oakey in 2010, during routine environmental investigations into potential hydrocarbon contamination.
But Shine Lawyers, which is running the class action, alleges Defence knew of the potential risks of using firefighting foam at the site much earlier.
In 1991 Defence conducted an internal investigation into the “waste disposal practices” at the base and their impact on “groundwater quality and drinking water quality for the Oakey aviation base and township of Oakey”, according to Shine’s statement of claim.
The claim alleges the investigation is evidence that Defence knew of potential environmental and human health risks of firefighting foam in 1991.
Defence has declined to release the report but told Guardian Australia the 1991 investigation did not consider the use of firefighting foam at the base and was more of a general investigation of the base’s waste disposal practices.
“In 1991, Pfas [per and polyfluorinated alkyl substances] was not considered an emerging contaminant and therefore Defence did not investigate for…