A further $86 million will be given to the community of Williamtown in NSW and $34 million will flow to residents of Oakey on Queensland’s Darling Downs.
The settlement likely represents the tip of the iceberg as the floodgates open to fresh claims, leaving the federal government grappling with a looming legal liability that could run into the billions.
The payout is also likely to reverberate around the world, in particular in the US where manufacturer 3M is under pressure to admit its liabilities over PFAS.
Shine Lawyers has confirmed it is poised to file a further seven class actions against the government by the end of the month over PFAS contamination arising from Defence sites.
The actions will focus on Richmond and Wagga Wagga in NSW, Wodonga in Victoria, Darwin in the North Territory, Townsville in Queensland, Edinburgh in South Australia and Bullsbrook in Western Australia.
There are a further 17 military bases where possible legal action is being investigated.
With at least 90 contaminated sites nationally – including commercial airports, fire stations and industrial sites – state governments and private corporations are facing a mounting legal risk.
The settlement only covered economic losses suffered by the claimants and has left the door open to a future personal injury action against the federal government.
On the day of their biggest win residents were prevented from speaking to the media after signing non-disclosure agreements. They were represented by Dentons Lawyers and Shine Lawyers in the federal court action, which was bankrolled by litigation funder IMF Bentham.
“While class actions for the little guy might happen on a semi-regular basis in the United States, it’s just not something that happens in Australia,” said Shine Lawyers partner Joshua Aylward, who helped spearhead the case.
PFAS is a growing global environmental problem and Mr Aylward argued Australia’s “lax” approach was “completely out of kilter” with the rest of the western world, including Europe and North America.
“Every day that goes by the science gets clearer and clearer and it’s only heading in one direction, that these chemicals are worse for you than they expected yesterday,” he said.
“These communities feel betrayed and there is a long way to go to rebuild trust and show them they are going to clean up their mess.”
The “forever chemicals”, which do not break down in the environment, were manufactured by chemical giant 3M for decades before a phase out in 2001. They have been key ingredients in popular consumer products such as Scotchguard and teflon pans.
Australia’s large contamination footprint is the result of PFAS in firefighting foam used at military sites from the 1970s until the 2000s.
Defence did not begin disclosing the contamination to affected communities until 2014, despite quietly alerting other government agencies to the risk years earlier.
The federal government has consistently denied a link between PFAS chemicals and health effects and refused to compensate people whose property values were decimated.
They agreed to settle the class actions after the Federal Court’s independent scientific umpire ruled there was “good evidence” the PFAS chemicals potentially cause harmful health effects, including kidney and testicular cancer.
Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith from the National Toxics Network welcomed the court’s review of the health impacts, saying she hoped it would put to an end the “no health impacts nonsense” that was “still being spouted by the government”.
In the US, authorities have declared the chemicals a human health hazard that could cause hormone disruption, effects on the immune system and cancer.
The class actions covered around 500 claimants in Williamtown and Oakey respectively, and up to three thousand people in Katherine, where an “opt out” system was used.
The government was sued as the party responsible for the pollution and chose not to launch a counter claim against the manufacturer, 3M.
A scheme to distribute the settlement funds to individual households is still being negotiated, with legal costs to be deducted from the final payout.
The government has not admitted any liability and will be released from any further compensation claims arising for economic losses.
A spokesperson for Dentons said the settlement would not be approved until the court had deemed the proposed amounts fair and reasonable.
“From there, we intend to communicate directly with class members to inform them of the proposed settlement distribution and next steps as quickly as we can,” the spokesperson said.
Dr Andrew Jeremijenko, a specialist in environmental medicine, said it was “about bloody time” the government fall into step with the 171 countries that have banned the most toxic of the PFAS chemicals.
“Stop charging the taxpayer for their inability to act,” he said.
Carrie Fellner is an investigative reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.