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Katherine residents demand urgent alternate water supply

KATHERINE residents are demanding the Federal Government immediately provides water and blood tests to people in the town following further revelations about chemical contamination in the area from the use of toxic firefighting foams.

Katherine is one of several sites around Australia exposed to toxic chemicals from firefighting foam used at Defence installations from the late 1990s.

The issue has been brewing in the town for more than year, and its impact is also being felt in Darwin, with contamination discovered around Darwin Airport.

But Katherine, with its close proximity to Tindal Airforce Base, has been at the forefront of concerns in the Territory. Last month a water treatment plant was flown in from the US to filter part of the town's drinking water and the local pool has been forced to close due to PFAS levels in the water.

The impact is also being felt in the agriculture sector, with at least two mango farmers in the region warned their water source was contaminated and they "should not eat too many mangoes".

According to a Defence Department website, it has been conducting an investigation into the effects of the chemical group known as PFAS since 2015.

However, a Four Corners investigation, which aired on Monday, revealed Defence was warned about the chemicals' potential environmental impact in the late 1980s.

Katherine residents who watched the Four Corners report on Monday night told the ABC they were "shocked and disgusted" by the attitudes and actions of the Defence Department.

Long-time Katherine resident Merlyn Smith posted an open letter on an online PFAS support page demanding immediate action from the Federal Government.

Ms Smith said the "testing of Katherine water has revealed two consecutive months of levels spiking the National Guideline of 0.07. This is following years of unregulated levels and the town water connection being diluted to under the interim FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) guidelines only in the last five months".

"The water treatment plant is operating at capacity and is limited by the current technology. The interim water treatment plant will treat 1/15th of the town's needs and be used to 'dilute' PFAS levels to under the above-mentioned guidelines. (This is) not a long-term solution," Ms Smith said.

She also said no blood tests have been conducted in Katherine to determine any possible human impacts.

The letter she has written to the Commonwealth Government states: "We (residents of Katherine NT) request the current investigation of PFAS contamination in Katherine Northern Territory, be upgraded to one of URGENT priority for local and federal government ... We acknowledge the limited capacity of local and Territory government to intervene as the use of firefighting foam at Tindal Air Base, Katherine, NT, was permitted through the exemption granted on the basis of 'historic uses'. This has continued to remain unmanaged and has led to a mass contamination crisis in which the Department of Defence has failed to act in a timely manner and many residents feel they aren't being protected or being provided with accurate information in regards to the PFAS contamination.

"So this is why I appeal on behalf of the residents of Katherine NT directly to Canberra and our Commonwealth representatives. I feel it is our Government's duty of care to ensure the most appropriate steps are taken in the interest of public safety and to prevent further harm and risk associated with PFAS exposure.

"We recommend an immediate intervention into the mismanagement of PFAS on a national scale with assistance of a clean water task force to supply our township of Katherine NT with alternate drinking water.

"We wish to express our dissatisfaction at the current progress of the investigation; how it is being communicated and managed in Katherine, NT, after RAAF sampling first identified high levels of PFAS in and around Katherine Tindal Air Base in November 2016.

"We recognise the need for an emergency contamination disaster plan as part of an integrated management plan that MUST include human risk assessments as the first priority and a voluntary blood testing program for each unique site.

"We wish to express our collective disappointment and are still in shock that the PFAS national environmental management plan fails to include an emergency contamination disaster plan for Katherine, NT, (thus putting residents and ecosystems further at risk) while PFAS continues to remain unmanaged and uncontained in and around Katherine, Northern Territory ..."

The letter continues on to discuss the PFAS impacts being felt in the town and it concludes with a simple but poignant request: "This letter was written on behalf of the residents of Katherine. We look forward to receiving alternate drinking water as soon as humanly possible: our families and children's health and future depends on our government's swift and timely action in the interests of public safety."

Topics:  australian government darwin katherine water contamination


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