By LEE McDOUGALL
BELINDA Attwill has a simple question for the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC): 'How long is a piece of string?'
It is this analogy that perhaps provides the clearest picture of the extent of the benzene contamination under the village of Coramba.
For almost five years, Belinda and her husband, Peter, have been trying to see justice done and raise awareness within the small village as to the extent of the contamination.
In January 2002, Peter discovered a 'strong petrol smell' on the banks of the Orara River that borders his family home.
Subsequent investigations by the then Environment Protection Authority (now DEC) discovered that the smell was leaking benzene leaching from out of the river banks.
In 2003, the Attwill property was declared a contaminated site and the Attwills have been in limbo ever since.
In June this year, test bores were drilled around the village in Gale Street, Thrower Avenue, Martin Street and Martin Lane to try and define the boundary of the contamination plume.
After months of delays, the environment assessment report that resulted from these test bores was released to the Attwills on December 1. Its findings are explosive.
"Basically, 31 extra properties were identified as having contaminated ground water running under them," Peter said.
Belinda said while it was disturbing to discover the enormous extent of the contamination, there was a certain amount of relief at finally having their beliefs justified.
"We have been saying for years that our property could not be the only property affected and now we have been proven right," Belinda said.
Coramba resident Larry Langman believes the question now needing to be asked is who has the duty of care to the people of Coramba.
"In 1999, both Coffs Harbour City Council and the DEC signed up to the Protection of the Environment Act. It defines clearing what process is to be taken in the event of a pollution event such as this occuring," Mr Langman said. "The first step is to notify the public and keep them informed every step of the way. In five years, there have been just three letters to the residents, and all were in 2002."
"It's not my responsibility to keep telling the people of Coramba that the land their properties are sitting on is contaminated," Peter said.
"Coramba has been officially recognised as one of the top worst residential hydrocarbon polluted sites in Australia, yet Belinda and I are the ones who are being left with the responsibility to tell the community."
The council's general manager, Stephen Sawtell, said while the council had a moral and ethical duty to the residents of Coramba, the issue of community consultation lay with DEC.
"Legally, the council has no responsibility in this issue until we are served with an order by DEC to become involved in the clean up," Mr Sawtell said.
"We have been waiting for this report along with the residents. We had no input into the report and no knowledge of what it contained, so how can the council communicate with the community on something that they have not been involved in?
"The council has never for one instance said the contamination was not bad. We have never tried to di- minish the issue."