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Tasmania fumes over media misconduct

By Mark Poynter - posted Wednesday, 7 July 2010


Contrary to extraordinary claims made on ABC television earlier this year, it has now been confirmed that timber plantations are not polluting the water supply and causing health problems in and around the Tasmanian township of St Helens.

This was the central finding of the George River Water Quality Panel which released its Final Report on June 29, 2010. The panel of expert scientists was appointed to investigate allegations raised in a double-episode of Australian Story entitled, “Something in the Water”, which was screened just weeks before Tasmania’s March state election in which forestry issues were, as usual, a major point of contention.

“Something in the Water” told the story of Tasmanian country GP, Dr Alison Bleaney who, in conjunction with marine scientist, Dr Marcus Scammell, was endeavouring to prove a hypothesis that plantations of shining gum (Eucalyptus nitens) were releasing toxins into the George River from which St Helens draws its water supply.

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The program sparked an at times hysterical reaction in Tasmania where there are more than 200,000 ha of eucalypt plantations, including substantial areas of E.nitens growing in catchments used for domestic water supply. It also raised concerns in Australia’s southern mainland states where E.nitens grows naturally and has also been widely established in timber plantations.

However, no sooner had it been screened than “Something in the Water” was condemned for ignoring or omitting key factors and inconvenient truths that would otherwise have put the threat of plantation forestry into its proper perspective. These included:

  • Ignoring Dr Bleaney’s history of activism which would have enabled viewers to conclude that her admirable concern for human health is at least matched by a long-standing determination to prove that Tasmania’s plantation sector is responsible for what she perceives to be higher than normal rates of human cancers.
     
  • Failing to acknowledge the small extent of plantations in the George River catchment (occupying just 3 to 4 per cent of its area and situated at least 25km from St Helens) thereby misleading viewers to believe that the town is surrounded by a substantial concentration of plantations.
     
  • Failing to fully explain the history of the St Helens water issue which would have allowed viewers to appreciate that the Tasmanian Government has responded to Drs Bleaney and Scammell’s claims from as far back as 2004, including their commissioning of an independent review by a University of Queensland academic which found no cause for alarm.
     
  • Failing to explain that government testing of the river system in February 2005, which found safe levels of toxicity 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.
     
  • Failing to acknowledge the potential threat to the water supply from non-forestry land uses in the George River catchment. This includes a significantly greater proportion used for agriculture and so subject to far more regular disturbance and more frequent pesticide use.
     
  • Misrepresenting the state of public health in St Helens and surrounding areas by relying primarily on the views of Dr Bleaney despite the Tasmanian Director of Public Health commissioning an independent review of her patient files by a Monash University academic which, in 2005, found no evidence of abnormally high rates of cancer.
     
  • Failing to report that the latest annual report published by the Tasmanian Cancer Registry showed no statistically significant differences in the incidence rates of common cancers for persons living in the Break O’Day municipality (which includes the St Helens region), compared to Tasmania as a whole.
     
  • Failing to report that stream health is routinely monitored in Tasmania with 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 of safe drinking water.
     
  • Creating an impression of Drs Bleaney and Scammell battling against government indifference to their concerns which is at odds with their appointment to a Community Consultative Committee on Water Quality established and funded since 2005 as part of the Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement.
     
  • Neglecting to mention that Eucalyptus nitens is naturally-occurring in Melbourne’s water supply catchments which supply more than 4 million people with what is widely acknowledged to be some of the world’s highest quality water.
     
  • Implying that genetic improvement of Eucalyptus nitens plantation trees is responsible for their toxicity to humans thereby allowing viewers to conclude that plantation trees have been “genetically modified” by grafting in genes from other organisms. In reality, desirable traits of E.nitens plantation trees have been improved over several generations by selective tree breeding which involves no alteration of genetic profiles.
     
  • Failing to include the views of an interviewed scientist who has found that the leaf toxicity of natural Eucalyptus nitens stands in Victoria is significantly higher than that of Tasmania’s E.nitens plantations. This would also have prevented speculation that genetic improvement of plantation trees had increased their toxicity.
     
  • Intimating that plantation management may be a factor in the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) in contravention of research by the Menzies Institute and the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program which had already shown that DFTD is not caused or influenced by the use of pesticides in the management of forestry plantations.

These numerous concerns about the veracity of the allegations raised by “Something in the Water” have now been effectively vindicated by the findings of the George River Water Quality Panel.

Of particular significance was the panel’s finding that the basis of the allegations raised by Drs Bleaney and Scammell was flawed by their use of an inappropriate water sampling technique. Their sampling methodology concentrated the level of naturally-occurring organic plant compounds by up to 1,400-times that at which they are normally present in aquatic ecosystems. Accordingly, the analysis of such concentrated water samples misrepresented compounds with a naturally negligible level of toxicity in stream water, as being highly toxic.

In view of the program’s many omissions, it is fair to conclude that the producers and journalists associated with Australian Story have demonstrably failed in their professional and ethical duty to research and report issues responsibly. If they had properly addressed all aspects of the St Helens water quality issue, they would have been unable to produce such a sensationalist program as “Something in the Water”. This would have spared Tasmania from the unwarranted community alarm which has ultimately been so costly.

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“Something in the Water” had been filmed some months earlier, but the ABC’s decision to screen it just weeks before the Tasmanian state election placed the incumbent Labor Government in an invidious position. Despite all that had been done in the previous six-years to investigate and virtually invalidate the St Helens water supply issue, this new bout of whipped-up fear demanded a response - failing to act would have been electoral suicide.

Accordingly, it was forced to immediately appoint the independent panel of expert scientists which became known as the George River Water Quality Panel. However, as the panel would be incapable of delivering its findings prior to the election, the government also immediately installed a carbon filter at the St Helens water treatment plant. Whether or not it believed this was required to make the water safe to drink, it was certainly needed to reassure panicky local residents that their government - especially in the lead-up to an election - was prepared to do whatever it takes to safe-guard their health.

While the Tasmanian government has estimated the combined cost of these measures to be a conservative $400,000, there have been other incalculable costs. These include a substantial loss of tourism to the region and a devastating loss of revenue for the region’s aquaculture industry due to the unsubstantiated fears spread by “Something in the Water”.

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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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