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Paradise Lost: The story behind new documentary ‘How to Poison a Planet’

The beautiful coastal haven of Wreck Bay has been polluted by ‘forever chemicals’. The government insists they’re not dangerous to humans, but a suspected cancer cluster has the local community worried.
Ash Williams-Barnes with he children at Greenfields beach. Fears of a cancer cluster in the Aboriginal community of Wreck Bay, which has launched a class action for cultural loss after its land was polluted with firefighting foam which contains per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) by neighbouring Defence base. Wreck Bay, December 16, 2022. Photo: Rhett Wyman / SMH

Ashlee Williams-Barnes grew up exploring rock pools and diving at beautiful Wreck Bay, where a crescent of blonde sand separates the dense bushland on the NSW South Coast from crystal waters that teem with fish, lobsters and abalone. For generations, members of the local First Nations community have gathered there to pass down traditional methods of diving and fishing, to drink clear water from the creeks and springs, and to feed themselves from the ocean. Those experiences were not just recreational, Ashlee says. They were sacred.

“We’d go and collect pippies,” the Wadi Wadi, Dharawal and Wandi Wandian woman recalls. “I learned to dive when I was 10, you know, diving for abalone and lobsters. We lived on fish. We would go up and get baker’s bread and eat it with fish, lobsters, abalone, pippies. That’s how we fed everybody.”

“We knew our Country well, inside and out,” says artist Theresa Ardler, a Gweagal, Bidjigal woman of the Dharawal, Wardian and Yuin nations. “As a kid I used to see little hatchlings of turtles when they’d make their way out to the sea. In the last 10 years or so, there’s been a lot of them dead. They didn’t make it to the ocean.”

The beach where Theresa and Ashlee grew up and learned about their culture is now closed due to contamination from a naval base at Jervis Bay, where the Department of Defence conducted training drills using a fire-fighting foam that contains chemicals known as PFAS.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – or PFAS for short – are a group of fluorinated compounds first developed by US chemical giant 3M. They have grease and water-resistant properties, and so are commonly used in household items like stain-resistant carpet, waterproof clothing and non-stick cookware. Until recently, they were considered safe. So safe, Theresa says, that when she was a student at Jervis Bay Primary School, the officers used to spray the kids with the foam.

“We had to practice our ‘civilians at war’ [safety drills] and they’d spray us with the foam,” Theresa says. “Then they’d fly us in the helicopter – up, out and onto the ships. They used to also spray us out in the community, just for fun.”

“It’s mind blowing,” says Ashlee, “that where the airstrip is, where the base is, all the springs run everywhere from there, right into our beaches …

“We don’t really eat seafood from out there anymore, which is really sad.”

HMAS CRESWELL, JERVIS BAY, AUSTRALIA, JANUARY 7, 2018: A closeup DigitalGlobe via Getty Images satellite image of HMAS Creswell, a Royal Australian Naval Base on the shores of Jervis Bay in Australia. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images via Getty Images)

In 2020, the Department of Defence informed the Wreck Bay community that elevated levels of PFAS, which are also known as ‘forever chemicals’, had been detected in the area.

“One of the problems with PFAS is that, once that chemical enters the environment, it will never break down,” says journalist Carrie Fellner, whose two-year investigation into PFAS at Wreck Bay is the subject of a new documentary, Revealed: How to Poison a Planet.

Carrie first heard about PFAS in 2015 when she covered a community meeting in Williamtown, near Newcastle. That town had also been contaminated by PFAS from an RAAF base. At the time, she says, little was known about the chemical.

“No one had any idea, to the point where even employees within the EPA [Environment Protection Authority] were having to Google ‘PFAS’,” she says.

Uncle Nick Carter with Sydney Morning Herald journalist Carrie Fellner. Fears of a cancer cluster in the Aboriginal community of Wreck Bay, which has launched a class action for cultural loss after its land was polluted with firefighting foam which contains per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) by neighbouring Defence base. Wreck Bay, June 9, 2022. Photo: Rhett Wyman / SMH

Williamtown residents were angry that Defence couldn’t answer their questions about the health implication of PFAS exposure. Carrie began hearing whispers of one road with seemingly high instances of cancer. She began knocking on doors on Cabbage Tree Road in the town and eventually uncovered 50 cases.

“There was one drain that was really highly polluted, and there was a house next to the drain and a little boy would go into the drain looking for frogs and go fishing,” Carrie says.

“By the time he was in his thirties he got this tumour in his neck. The doctors said they’d never seen a tumour like that before and they couldn’t even tell him what type of cancer it was because it was so unusual. And then his mother and his aunt, who both spent a lot of time at that property, got cancer. They all moved out and then another family moved in and then they developed cancer.

“It was just astonishing – the rates we were seeing. So, to me, the alarm bells were ringing.”

2JHNX59 Zenith Beach, Wreck Beach B and Box Beach from the Tomaree Mountain Lookout – Shoal Bay, NSW, Australia

In 2018 Carrie flew to Oakdale, Minnesota, where 3M is based, and learnt there had been 21 cases of cancer at the local high school in just 15 years. Students were contracting rare and deadly forms of the disease.

So, when the residents of Wreck Bay were told of the contamination in 2020, Carrie was dismayed but unsurprised to hear that similar patterns were occurring.

“We’ve lost so many people riddled with cancer out at Wreck Bay,” Ashlee says.

“Women, especially, and young girls in my community that have cancer and [have] had their breast removed,” says Theresa. “My mother died of ovarian cancer. My dad died at work using the foam.” Her father was a ranger. “He had a heart attack.”

Theresa is in remission for pancreatic cancer.

Artist and Wreck Bay resident Theresa Ardler. Fears of a cancer cluster in the Aboriginal community of Wreck Bay, which has launched a class action for cultural loss after its land was polluted with firefighting foam which contains per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) by neighbouring Defence base. Wreck Bay, April 29, 2023. Photo: Rhett Wyman / SMH

Ashlee is also a survivor. She began investigating some troubling symptoms in 2013, and says that because “a lot of Dad’s brothers who lived at Wreck Bay had died of cancer or heart problems,” she was worried. It took two years to get a diagnosis, and by then her cervical cancer was advanced.

“They didn’t even know if I was going to make Christmas in 2015,” she says. “Everyone thought I was going to die, the doctors included.”

After intense radiation and chemotherapy, Ashlee went into remission, but soon after, her niece Skye Sturgeon learned she had a brain tumour. Two years after that, Skye’s sister, Jade, was told she had tumours on her brain too.

“They were all benign, but they were tumours and they had to get operated on,” Ashlee says.

Fears of a cancer cluster in the Aboriginal community of Wreck Bay, which has launched a class action for cultural loss after its land was polluted with firefighting foam which contains per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) by neighbouring Defence base. Wreck Bay, April 29, 2023. Photo: Rhett Wyman / SMH

Neither she nor Theresa can be certain their cancers were caused by PFAS, but they both attest to the high rates of cancer in Wreck Bay, and the fear that it has come from “swimming in poison”.

“I don’t go bushwalking out there, I don’t swim out there, because I’m so scared that I’m going to get cancer again,” Ashlee says.

Last year the Federal Government agreed to pay the community $22 million, without admitting liability, to settle a class action for property value losses, distress and interference with the use of Wreck Bay.

The Commonwealth’s position on the health effects of PFAS is that the scientific understanding is “still developing”.

Wreck Bay residents outside Supreme court who are speaking out against the $22 million Pfas settlement.. June 19th, 2023. Photo Edwina Pickles SMH

Last year 3M agreed to pay US$10.3 billion in a settlement with 300 American towns and communities that believe their water was contaminated with PFAS. The European Union is currently reviewing proposed restrictions on PFAS chemicals.

“In the United States and Europe, they both say that PFAS can increase the risk of cancer, suppress the immune system, raise cholesterol, decrease fertility, interfere with hormones and cause developmental issues in children,” Carrie says.

The health concerns are just one part of the tragedy the community has had to come to terms with, however. Both Ashlee and Theresa say the devastation they feel at the contamination of their cultural lands cannot be overstated. “It’s really sad because my kids … they’re little saltwater people and they just love the ocean, and they love fishing … but we can’t do that from home at Wreck Bay,” Ashlee says.

“It has literally stolen a piece of our identity, our connection to Country. It has interrupted our Songline. For generations, the impact is going to be brutal for our people.”

The Stan Original Documentary ‘Revealed: How To Poison A Planet’ is now streaming, only on Stan.

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