IT has been nearly two years since the residents in Williamtown found out their properties were contaminated with toxic chemicals from the nearby RAAF Base, but the federal government still has no idea how much the scandal is going to cost taxpayers.
In a budget that contained few new spending measures for the Hunter that hadn’t already been announced, there was no money for the Lake Macquarie interchange, which Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon said was a“slap in the face” for the region.
Tuesday’s budget revealed that despite a $55 million pledge to deal with the crisis before the last federal election, the overall cost of cleaning up the contamination across Australia coupled with the potential legal fall-out from the ongoing resident class action lawsuit is still “unquantifiable”.
The stark reality that the federal government doesn’t know how much contamination from perfluro-alkalyne chemicals – otherwise known as PFAS – is going to cost it was buried deep in the budget papers among the government’s financial “liabilities”.
While the government says the Department of Defence has “made a financial provision” for the estimated cost of “restoring, decontaminating and decommissioning” sites “where a legal or constructive obligation has arisen”, it hasn’t figured out how much the wider spread of the scandal may cost.
And, even then, it admits that “costs associated with potential long term management options such as containment and remediation cannot be quantified at this time, but could be considerable given the current lack of practicable management options”.
Despite the uncertainty, Williamtown remained the largest Hunter priority in the budget.
While Treasurer Scott Morrison unveiled an ambitious $75 billion infrastructure program on the back of what he says is an improving economy, the Hunter was largely absent from the splash.
The government announced it will spend $12.5 million over the next four years to establish a national research program into the health effects of prolonged exposure to PFAS contamination, including the “establishment and administration of an expert health panel, which will use its expertise to identify research priorities and gaps in the knowledge base”.
The budget papers also reaffirmed the government will spend $14 million aross the four years period from 2016-17 to “undertake human health related initiatives to support communities in Williamtown [and] Oakey” in Queensland.
However the lack of detail costings on where the whole $55 million promised last year will go is likely to frustrate Labor and residents involved in the ongoing class action.
Elsewhere, the government reaffirmed its previous infrastructure commitments. It will spend $30 million on the Scone Bypass next financial year, while also commiting another $10 million to the duplication of the Tourle Street Bridge.
Upgrades to Testers Hollow will receive $500,000 in 2017-18, and $15 million by 2020-21.
The government also confirmed it will provide $12.5 million over the next six years for the University of Newcastle’s Central Coast medical school, announced a day before the budget.
It will also provide $33.4 million to establish the Commonwealth Redress Scheme for survivors of “institutional child sex abuse”.
The scheme will commence in March next year and will start receiving applications from July next year from “people who were sexually abused as children in Commonwealth institutions”.
Indexation of Financial Assistance Grants to local councils will also resume. Called for by Labor representatives across the Hunter, the government says the decision will result in an extra $836.5 million across the forward estimates.
Need for speed on ‘key’ rail lines RAIL FIX: The federal government has announced a $20 million fund to plan for faster rail between major cities.
THE much-maligned Sydney to Newcastle rail line has a golden opportunity to be overhauled, with the federal government revealing it is “willing to deliver”new rail projects to speed up travel times between cities.
The government announced $20 million for states to develop a business case for projects that lead to the “operation of faster rail in key transport corridors”.
An auditor-general’s report recently found serious deficiencies in the Sydney to Newcastle line, which was considered too slow and unreliable a service.
The federal government will call for proposals from the states, before considering further funding if it is satisfied with the business case.
The government said a $10 billion investment in rail over the next decade would aim to provide “more reliable” transport networks.
What’s in it for the HunterRoads
M1 upgrades … $60 million*
Cessnock Road,Testers Hollow $15 million (over four years)*
Duplication ofTourleStreetBridge… $10 million*
Park Street, Gresford … $1 million*
SconeBypass … $30 million*
National Rail Program for faster services … $20 million
PFAS health study … $12.5 million*
RAAF Base Williamtown redevelopment … $274 million (over six years)*
Child sexual abuse
Redress Scheme for Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse … $33.4 million*
UniversityofNewcastle’sCentralCoastmedical school … $12.5 million*