The federal government has settled a $132.7m class action lawsuit over a toxic firefighting foam which contaminated water tables at seven sites across Australia.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS, were used to fight fires on Australian Defence Force (ADF) bases until the early 2000s.
The class action claimed landowners were exposed to the poisonous material after it leached into groundwater near bases at Wagga Wagga and Richmond in New South Wales, Wodonga in Victoria, Darwin, Townsville in Queensland, Edinburgh in South Australia, and Bullsbrook in Western Australia.
The $132.7m settlement will be split between about 30,000 complainants. It came after midnight ahead of the trial which was due to begin in the Federal Court on Monday.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said while he would leave the government's response to the settlement to Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, his biggest concern remained the health outcomes of people affected by it.
“People have, across a range of communities, suffered from the use of this,” said Mr Albanese.
“It's another example of where we have to get occupational health and safety right.
“We need to get it right in the first place that would avoid these sort of actions.”
Shine Lawyers represented the claimants in the case; Shine’s Craig Allsopp said while the news was positive, the outcome was still subject to approval by the Federal Court.
“It is always a good outcome when group members reach an agreement ahead of a trial to avoid incurring the extra costs and risks of complex litigation through the court,” said Mr Allsopp.
“The settlement money, if approved, will go some way to compensate the seven communities in this class action for their losses, however, many are still stuck on contaminated land.
The next step in our negotiations is to present our in-principle agreement to the Federal Court. If the proposed settlement is found to be fair and reasonable, the court will approve it.”
Despite the settlement, it should be noted the payout is not an admission of liability.
An eighth site — Wreck Bay, in NSW — will be the subject of a separate class action on May 29, in which the complainants will also be repsetented by Shine Lawyers.
The term PFAS covers about 4700 different chemicals which don’t degrade, and instead accumulate in soil, water, and even in people.
The government previously paid out a $212.5m settlement to residents in Katherine, Northern Territory, Oakey in QLD, and Williamtown NSW in early 2021, also over Defence PFAS contamination.