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Chemical contamination scandal flares again with $50 million lawsuit

Statewide

The Federal Government settled a class action from Oakey residents in June. Now, one of the biggest companies in town is taking action.

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Oakey Beef Exports, a subsidiary of NH Foods Australia, processes meat for sale around the world. It was established in 1956 and, as one of the biggest operations in Australia, employs hundreds of people in southern Queensland.

But, according to a lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court, chemical contamination from the Army Aviation Centre Oakey has already cost Oakey Beef money, threatens its expansion plans, and will require a massive clean-up operation.

Firefighting foam used at various sites around Australia leached chemicals known as PFAS and PFOS into the ground and water, potentially creating a future health hazard. This has led to inquiries and legal action, with activist Erin Brockovich even visiting Australia to rally behind affected communities.

In June, the Federal Court approved the government’s $212 million class action settlement, including $34 million for more than 500 people in Oakey. However, that lawsuit did not include Oakey Beef, which operates at a high standard and expects water that is free from contamination. The following month, the company quietly launched its own court proceedings.

Oakey Beef is seeking damages for nuisance or negligence by the government, while it considers a way forward for the company on the site. It had planned a $30 million expansion, starting in 2014, but is now looking at remediation instead.

After the Department of Defence began to investigate the Oakey contamination in 2013, Oakey Beef stopped drawing water from alluvial bores on its property. The court documents show the company met with Safe Work Australia in 2015 and, on their advice, decided to discontinue use of the East Alluvial Bore and the redirection valve for water from the West Alluvial Bore.

While that was considered a prudent, precautionary measure, last year Oakey Beef drained its dams and, according to the documents, found the sludge contaminated with PFAS and PFOS that had transferred through drainage systems from the alluvial bores.

In its statement of claim, Oakey Beef gives a headline figure of its costs at $46,931,176, including $26,675,000 to remove the contaminated sludge and $15,957,488 to source alternative water for its operations.

Oakey Beef has already, according to the documents, spent $171,796 on water testing and $797,878 on other water, and expects the workaround to be an ongoing drain on its finances.

The Government has yet to file a defence and is likely to attempt to settle the matter out of court.

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