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Something's in the water at the ABC

By Mark Poynter - posted Friday, 5 March 2010


Right now, on the eve of their state election, many Tasmanians are afraid to drink their local water and are convinced that the incumbent state government doesn’t care about their health. This follows a recent two-part episode of the ABC’s Australian Story, entitled “Something in the Water”, which has created a furore in the island state and effectively trashed the reputations of its very important plantation forestry and aquaculture industries.

“Something in the Water” examined the alleged impact of tree plantations on stream water quality in the George River catchment which supplies the north-eastern township of St Helens. For some Tasmanians, the program’s screening represents a high point in years of activism directed against the state’s forest industry. This includes Dr Alison Bleaney, the local GP who has raised the allegations and was the central figure in the program.

While Australian Story portrayed Dr Bleaney as a public health altruist, it ignored her history of activism from which it could arguably be concluded that she is at least equally as motivated by an anti-forestry agenda. This is evident in her current memberships of the National Toxics Network, Doctors for the Environment, and Poisons Tasmania; as well as her past association with the now lapsed group, Doctors for Native Forests, whose website once proclaimed its determination “to end clearfelling and woodchipping in native forests” and “to change government policies and management structures that relate to native forests”.

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To justify the participation of medicos in forestry issues and distinguish them from other forest activists, Doctors for Native Forests was intent on linking timber production to public health. Indeed, their founding members, Drs Peter Pullinger and Frank Nicklason, were once sued for making wild accusations about legionella bacteria residing in woodchip piles on the Burnie wharf.

Dr Bleaney first publicly proffered her theory that aerial spraying of tree plantations was implicated in public health issues in and around St Helens in July 2004 when she released a report prepared jointly by herself and Sydney-based marine ecologist, Dr Marcus Scammell.

Their report claimed that the pesticides used in early plantation management were the most probable cause of oyster deaths in Georges Bay at St Helens and, in a wider attack on Tasmanian forestry practices, went on to link the alleged contamination of water by plantation management with mortality in the Tasmanian Devil, and claimed that it may pose a risk to human health.

In response to Bleaney and Scammell’s 2004 report, the Tasmanian government commissioned an independent review by University of Queensland academic, Professor Paolo Ricci, which concluded that their report was not scientifically sound and that by mixing science and policy it “creates a set of illusory relations based on improper conclusions”. It further described their report as “… an opinionated manifesto” and implied that it was primarily a vehicle for promoting an anti-forestry agenda.

Nevertheless, despite its limitations, Bleaney and Scammell’s 2004 report received significant media coverage. This included a major story aired on Channel Nine’s Sunday program in late September 2004 in which Tasmanian plantation forestry was extensively vilified with Drs Bleaney and Scammell acting as prominent critics. This program was screened during the final weeks of the 2004 Federal election campaign in which Tasmanian forestry was a prominent issue.

While the past history of this issue provides some insight into its proponents, it does not necessarily invalidate their now updated hypothesis that toxins released from the leaves of the plantation species, Eucalyptus nitens - rather than aerial spraying of pesticides - is the root cause of oyster deaths in Georges Bay and associated human health problems in and around St Helens.

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As extensive plantations of this species are widespread across Tasmania, this hypothesis has potential to affect a large proportion of Tasmanians who rely on drinking water extracted from streams and dams which flow from catchments containing eucalypt plantations, some with a higher concentration of plantations than the George River catchment at St Helens.

However, a key question is whether this hypothesis warrants the level of community hysteria generated by “Something in the Water”, and furthermore, whether the program has accurately reported the issue without embellishment. There is plenty to suggest that it did not. Indeed, it has ignored, downplayed, dealt with improperly, or failed to fully present key evidence that would otherwise have put the threat of plantation forestry into its proper perspective.

Instances of this include:

A failure to acknowledge the small extent of plantation in the George River catchment: “Something in the Water” was predicated on the basis of there being a substantial concentration of plantations in the George River catchment. At one point in the program, Dr Scammell referred to St Helens as being “surrounded by plantation timbers - the Eucalyptus nitens …” In fact, plantations occupy only about 4 to 5 per cent of the George River catchment and are mostly located in the upper catchment at least 25km from St Helens.

A failure to acknowledge the potential impact of non-forestry threats in the George River catchment: “Something in the Water” failed to mention that a significantly greater area of the George River catchment is being used for agriculture and so is subject to far greater disturbance and more frequent pesticide use than the small portion under plantation.

The North Eastern Rivers Environmental Review by L. Koehnken (2001) identified potential water quality issues in the George River catchment as including uncontrolled stock access, dairy effluent, septic tank leakage, and past tin mining activities. “Something in the Water” provided no evidence that the prospect of water contamination from these non-forestry threats has ever been seriously considered.

Misrepresentation of the state of public health in St Helens and surrounding areas: “Something in the Water” was largely built around the view of local GP, Dr Bleaney, that incidences of human cancer and other serious illnesses were increasing in and around St Helens. However, there is no hard evidence to support this. In fact, in 2005, the Tasmanian Director of Public Health invited Dr Bleaney to nominate an independent reviewer of her patient files in a bid to establish if there was any obvious commonality or cluster effect. None could be found by the reviewer, Associate Professor, Dr Malcolm Sim, of Monash University but this was not acknowledged in the program.

“Something in the Water” also ignored the latest annual report published by the Tasmanian Cancer Registry which shows no statistically significant differences in the incidence rates of common cancers for persons living in the Break O’Day municipality within which St Helens is located, compared to Tasmania as a whole.

Misrepresentation of the Tasmanian Government as being indifferent to Dr Bleaney’s concerns: When the 2004 Bleaney and Scammell report was released, the relevant government authorities responded by immediately testing St Helens water supply. The Department of Primary Industries and Water (DPIW) also investigated the oyster deaths in Georges Bay and responded to Bleaney and Scammell’s report. Natural Heritage Trust funding was used to conduct an independent scientific assessment of the health of Georges Bay which was completed in 2005.

The DPIW also conducted their own testing of the river system in February 2005. “Something in the Water” acknowledged this government testing of samples taken from the same sites and collected in the same manner as Drs Bleaney and Scammell. However, it did not explain that the government’s finding that toxicity was due to natural organic compounds was based on comparing samples taken downstream of the plantations with a sample taken from a natural bush catchment upstream of the plantations. Conversely, Dr Scammell’s more damning finding appears to have been based only on samples taken downstream of the plantations because his upstream sample had a chain of custody documentation issue and could not be used.

The government’s report of its finding remains freely available on the Tasmanian Environment Protection Agency’s website.

In addition, a Community Consultative Committee on Water Quality was established and funded as part of the 2005 Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement. Both Dr Bleaney and Dr Scammell were appointed as members but this was not mentioned in “Something in the Water”.

River health is routinely monitored in Tasmania and recorded in annual reporting of water quality and quarterly reporting of pesticide contamination. After five years of published results pesticides have only ever been detected at trace levels, with nothing exceeding the levels required for healthy drinking water. Again, this was not mentioned in the program.

Despite all these efforts, a central theme of “Something in the Water” was that Drs Bleaney and Scammell were ignored and have had to battle on against government indifference to their concerns.

Implying that genetic improvement of Eucalyptus nitens plantation trees was responsible for increasing their toxicity: Although “Something in the Water” used the term “genetically improved” in relation to plantation trees, many viewers appear to have interpreted this as being akin to “genetically modified”. Tasmania’s plantation trees have been genetically improved over several generations by selective tree breeding for desirable traits by using seed from individuals which possess these traits. This is vastly different from genetic modification (or GM) in which genetic profiles are altered by grafting in genes from other organisms.

Eucalyptus nitens is a naturally-occuring species in Melbourne’s water supply catchments which meet the needs of 4 million people, and there should be little difference in leaf chemistry between these natural forests and the trees growing in Tasmanian plantations beyond natural variations due to age.

To be fair, “Something in the Water” used a term that is frequently used by the plantation industry. However, it was derelict in not seeking clarification from the industry as to what genetic improvement actually means.

Wrongly implying that plantation management is a factor in the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease: In “Something in the Water”, it was intimated on several occasions that there may be a link between plantation management and the initiation and spread of the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). This allegation was first made by Drs Bleaney and Scammell in 2004 when considerably less was known about DFTD. Since then research by the Menzies Institute and the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program has shown that DFTD is not caused or influenced by the use of pesticides in the management of forestry plantations. Unfortunately, the program failed to draw this research to the attention of its viewers.

Arguably, if all these matters had been properly addressed, there would be far less of a story to be told and certainly far less hysteria surrounding the issue. A cynical view is that Australian Story elected not to fully address these matters so as not to invalidate an otherwise “good” story.

Certainly, Australian Story appears to have made little effort to canvas views about these matters beyond the opinions of Drs Bleaney and Scammell. They did not even contact the peak Tasmanian forest industry body, FIAT, until Thursday, February 11, just days before the first episode was to be screened on the following Monday, February 15.

It is thought that the program was actually filmed last year, but was held over to be screened during the Tasmanian election campaign. If true, this suggests that although the ABC obviously believed there was a serious public health issue affecting the people of St Helens, they deemed it to be less important than delaying the screening of the program to help facilitate a particular political outcome.

This delay has potential health implications that may be being further exacerbated. In the wake of the program, when the Tasmanian Director of Public Health sought to test the hypothesis and asked for Drs Bleaney and Scammell’s data, he was referred to their lawyers. Government Senator Kerry O’Brien later raised this in the Senate, where he observed:

What is most concerning is that these claims, which apparently are not allowed to be properly examined by the public health authorities, are out there in the public arena. There are aquaculture operators who have to sell their product in an environment where an untested claim suggests there is a toxic substance affecting the product they are growing. On that ground alone, one would have thought there was some obligation by those who produce the material to allow it to be publicly tested. Equally, there is the suggestion that this toxic substance, as it finds its way into public drinking water, is going to affect public health. One would have thought that, on public health grounds, Dr Bleaney would have accepted the need for a public examination of those claims, lest the public be alarmed by claims made in the media.

If the ABC was genuinely acting in the public interest they would have alerted the Director of Public Health to the details of Bleaney and Scammell’s updated hypothesis months ago when they first became aware of it. If this hypothesis is subsequently proven to be wrong, its over-zealous promotion by the ABC will have considerably damaged Tasmania’s clean and green image - and consequently its socio-economic fabric - for little more than a self-serving grab for political relevance.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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