National

Tears as govt settles defence foam cases

By AAP Newswire

Thousands of people in regional Northern Territory, Queensland and NSW living on contaminated Defence land have shed tears of relief as the federal government finally settled after years in limbo.

About 400 residents in Williamtown, north of Newcastle, launched a class action against the Department of Defence in 2016 after PFAS chemicals (Per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) contaminated soil and water in the area.

About 500 residents in Oakey, Queensland, and thousands in Katherine, NT, launched their own claims soon afterwards.

PFAS was once used in firefighting foam at the defence bases in the three communities.

The federal government on Thursday said an in-principle agreement had been reached and a confidential settlement was being finalised for the three Federal Court class actions.

The announcement came just a month before the start of a Federal Court trial and the settlement will now need the approval of the court.

The settlement means the residents will be compensated for losses in the value of their properties as a result of the contamination.

Williamtown resident Lindsay Clout says it's been a long battle.

"People are really feeling comfortable again today," he told AAP on Thursday.

"There have been some tears of relief shed this morning by local residents."

The Coalition Against PFAS president added while the settlement was welcome it didn't change what the community had been through.

"We were continually told we were unimportant and what happened to us was the way it was going to be," he said.

Joshua Aylward of Shine Lawyers, which represented the actions at Oakey and Katherine, said their clients' reactions included shock and disbelief.

"Some of them never thought the Commonwealth would come good after such a long period of time, but they are excited that it actually is moving forward without ... going to trial," he told the media.

Mr Aylward said people had known for years chemicals were on their property, their land value was dropping, and their blood had highly elevated levels of the chemicals.

"These chemicals are not good and this adds a lot of stress to these families, especially in places like Katherine where it is still in the municipal town water," he said.

Port Stephens NSW MP Kate Washington says the news has been met with relief and some shock.

"I'm hopeful it will mean the residents can start healing and that the heartbreak may end," she told AAP on Thursday.

The government says it is committed to engaging with those affected by the contamination.

"Defence sees itself as part of the fabric of these communities," Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and Defence Personnel Minister Darren Chester said in a joint statement late on Wednesday.

"Reaching a settlement is not the end of Defence's engagement in these communities, however, it does represent an important milestone on what has been a difficult journey for many people over the past few years."

They said the government was committed to finishing environmental investigations into PFAS contamination around defence facilities, and to ongoing monitoring and engagement with communities.