Land contamination shame: media, residents banned

Defence Minister Marise Payne banned the media and most residents from an Oakey groundwater contamination meeting.

That was despite the department's earlier claim to conduct an open and transparent investigation.

Oakey resident Dianne Priddle said she was angry to be given such a short time to explain the devastating effects on her and families in the region.

About 10 residents were invited and allowed to be at the meeting for their chance to speak to the minister.

This was a change from the three originally told that they could have just three minutes to state their case at the Oakey Army Aviation Centre.

The meeting stretched out to almost two hours.

Those invited were given the final details late on Wednesday.

Other parties in the room included the Oakey Chamber of Commerce and Toowoomba Regional Council mayor Paul Antonio.

Mrs Priddle went into the meeting with "an open heart" and faced the minister on behalf of people affected as part of the round table discussion.

She said she was furious at the way the water contamination had been handled by the Department of Defence and put the blame firmly on their shoulders.

Mrs Priddle said before she went in she felt let down and deflated by the Defence department's lack of action.

After the meeting, she said while the fight was long for over, she would give Sen Payne the benefit of the doubt.

Sen Payne promised in the meeting to finalise and release results of testing at affected sites in two months.

"The issues are not solved, but she did listen and she put her best political face on," Mrs Priddle said.

"She acknowledged that this has not been handled well."

Mrs Priddle said regardless of the election, both Sen Payne and the opposition Defence Minister Stephen Conroy had now committed to work on contamination concerns.

Resident Jennifer Spencer said she walked away from the meeting with "a bit more of a positive attitude" but was also cynical about the reassurances from the minister.

"I still believe this was a political ploy but she did pledge to come back if she was re-elected," she said.

Ms Spencer said while the study results would take months, the best way to unite the community was to instigate affected land buy-backs.

She said the suggestion by one speaker that affected landholders should stop talking to the media, as it was generating negative publicity, was "hugely condescending".

"That's when I got really fiery."

To Mrs Priddle, this meeting was one more government attempt at secrecy.

"How we've been treated from the start is disgraceful," she said.

"I still struggle with why she couldn't show her face in Oakey before now.

UPDATE 4.15pm: Oakey resident Jennifer Spencer has just three minutes to speak to Defence Minister Marise Payne at the meeting with the minister this afternoon.

She said after years of fighting, she was still waiting for the gravity of the situation to sink in with the Department of Defence.

Ms Spencer had hoped the minister could spare some time to meet with residents before or after the closed meeting, outside of the formal closed-door session.

She said she was angry the council, chamber of commerce and a state MP were also given time in front of the senator when that could have been given to other residents.

Protesters outside the Oakey Army Aviation Centre.
Protesters outside the Oakey Army Aviation Centre.

"The mayor and the chamber are not directly affected by this… they've had years to speak as well when we've been the ones pushing for answers," she said.

"It was John McVeigh who got to pick and choose who was coming or wasn't coming."

She said she would question the senator on why she came out to Oakey, believing it was just to tick off the commitment.

"I'm glad she's coming but it isn't genuine, or altruistic. It's just playing politics… there is no genuine empathy."

"A lot of people would have liked to come along, just to sit and listen," she said.

The one-hour session will begin at 4.30pm.

UPDATE 9.40am: Oakey resident Dianne Priddle is angry that after years of fighting for answers and action on groundwater contamination, her meeting with Defence Minister Marise Payne will today be held behind closed doors.

A spokesman for Sen Payne confirmed last week the senator would visit Oakey to hear the concerns of residents, but after repeated calls for information, it was announced today media, and the wider community, would be banned.

Mrs Priddle said she would go into the hour-long meeting with "an open heart" but was furious she would have to face the minister, on behalf of people affected, virtually on her own.

"Only three of us can speak, because of time restraints… I just feel so let down, so deflated at the moment," she said.

Oakey resident Dianne Priddle.
Oakey resident Dianne Priddle. Bev Lacey

"I wish I knew how to get the government to understand what is going on in our lives."

Mrs Priddle, who talks passionately about the effects of contamination of chemicals PFOS and PFOA from fire-fighting foam, said she had spent the night deciding what she would say when she faces Sen Payne.

To Mrs Priddle, this meeting is one more government attempt at secrecy and mis-management, now dating back 13 years.

"They think that by gracing us with an hour of their time a handful of days out from the election is meant to make is feel like we're being heard?" she said.

A map showing water contamination in Oakey, with red showing the worst areas.
A map showing water contamination in Oakey, with red showing the worst areas. Contributed

"All I want the government to do is fix up this mess that they created so we can have our life back, but until they can look at sorting the financial issues, our land, our lives, our business, our homes, we can't move on from this. "

She said with such high stakes, a last minute closed meeting was "disgraceful".

Mrs Priddle said the meeting should have been made public and be given the time it deserved for Sen Payne to understand the issues and concerns.

"It's a cop out."

Groom LNP candidate John McVeigh will be at the meeting along with Toowoomba regional councillors and other parties.

Dr Eric Donaldson and Jennifer Spencer will also speak on behalf of residents.

The closed meeting will be held today at 4.30pm at the Oakey Aviation Army Aviation Centre.

A spokesperson for Sen Payne said she and the assistant Defence Minister would meet with a number of community members, councillors, the LNP candidate for Groom John McVeigh and Condamine MP Pat Weir.

"The format of the meeting is the same as the meeting held in Williamtown recently, enabling community members to have an in-depth and constructive conversation with the minister and assistant minister," he said. 

EARLIER: The Chronicle and other media have been blocked by the Defence Department from attending today's first meeting between Minister for Defence Marise Payne and a select group of Oakey residents.

The media blackout - and the meeting - are being dubbed secretive.

Previously the department had vowed it would remain open and transparent.

The meeting will be held at the Oakey Army Aviation Centre - an area with restricted access which will completely blocked any media oversight.

The move to block media came after the Oakey groundwater contamination crisis was put on the national stage with the Today Show investigating the issue on  television this morning.

It's the latest exposure the issue has received since The Chronicle first broke the story in 2014.

Presenter Karl Stefanovic outlined the history of the chemical contamination of the town's groundwater by the Oakey Army Aviation Centre.



Mr Stefanovic interviewed residents Brad Hudson and Jennifer Spencer who both expressed their frustration with the Defence Department's handling of the issue.

Mr Hudson said although the base had ceased using perfluorooctane sulphonate and perfluorooctanoic acid - known as PFOS and PFOA - in 2006, the amount of chemicals in his water was rising.

"At that rate I'll be dead and buried," he said.

"I'd love to move away, it's getting to that stage, do we just go bankrupt?"

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said this week the threat of the chemicals to Oakey needed to be fully assessed.

Shine Lawyers is preparing to launch a class action over the issue.

The visit of Senator Payne to Oakey was dubbed an election stunt by reporters on the Today Show.

"Unless she's going out there to do something, it's not going to mean a lot to the residents of Oakey," Mr Stefanovic said. 

A Senate inquiry recently made a number of recommendations regarding the issue including that blood testing be made available and mental health support provided.

The department is yet to give an explanation for the media blackout.

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