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Upper Catchment Issues Vol 2 No 3

Author: Tasmanian Community Resource Auditors Incorporated


Background and Statement of the Issue


St. Helens is situated in the north east of Tasmania (see Map 1). It has a population of 2800 and the key industries are fishing, agriculture, tourism and forestry.

Statement of the Issue

For some time there have been concerns over the health of the water catchments above St. Helens (see Map 2), in particular the ones feeding into Georges Bay. There are also community concerns regarding potable water quality. These concerns have been driven by an awareness of numerous activities within the catchment areas that could be considered potentially hazardous. Community concerns have been raised with the local council (Morcom nd). During 1997, the State Government detailed water quality guidelines for maintaining acceptable water quality outcomes. Despite this and other efforts (Australian Government 2004) there were ongoing concerns about water quality in relation to commercial oyster farming operations in Georges Bay. The period 1997 to present has seen ongoing problems with oyster health (Percival 2004). The oyster operators found that oyster stress, ill thrift and mortalities seemed to increase following rain events in excess of 20mm (as catchment fall). Concerns were further heightened when a helicopter carrying an amount of pesticide crashed high up in the catchment spilling chemical within 250m of a stream feeding into Georges Bay (Parsley 2004). The crash occurred late in 2003. Community members became further concerned at the lack effective emergency response to the issue. These concerns were shared by Tony Walker the Environmental Health Officer and Manager, Development Services at the local Council (Break O'Day) (Walker 2004). Mr Walker said "The report raises concerns that I share in respect to notification, let us hope that the authorities concerned will ensure a similar incident is reported to all affected parties". It is also interesting to note that the Spray Information and Referral Unit (the official Government body authorized to deal with spill investigations) did not visit the site until 16 weeks after the helicopter had crashed (Parsley 2004). Parsley reported in the conclusion to his report that, "Of some concern, is the protocol for an incident of this kind, which in hindsight has proved to be inadequate" (Parsley, 2004).

In a recent rainfall event during late January 2004, oyster deaths at some farms peaked at greater than 80% (Appendix 1). In response to this issue, the local oyster industry commissioned Dr. Scammell to complete a review of the available information (Scammell 2004). Scammell concluded that aerial spraying of chemicals (pesticides) should cease until all matters were investigated.

Events in the wake of the significant commercial oyster kill, following a high rainfall episode and a dam release1 in the upper catchment, led the local community to become concerned about potential chemical contamination of water discharged from the catchment. This, along with concerns over possible water contamination caused by pesticide arising from a spray-helicopter crash several months earlier, led the community to initiate its own inquiry. As the inquiry unfolded it appeared that official responses to both the oyster kill and the helicopter crash were deficient and indicated deeper and more systemic issues relating to the possible need for risk assessment and appropriate incident response.

This report explores these issues in the framework of a Community Based Audit and recommends areas for change and improvement.

Methodology and Methods

This community inquiry used an approach similar to that outlined in Upper Catchment Issue, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Gschwendtner et al 2001). The process in the present inquiry involved a rigorous search for mismatches when comparing official actions with those laid down in protocols and action plans. At the same time, various government departments were contacted in order to determine the level of awareness and extent of harmonization in relation to appropriate response regarding chemical spills and potential water contamination. The audit worked across several areas and layers of local, state and federal government agencies. The key questions that guided the oyster death case study included:

The Audit

The Community Audit findings
The community audit process critically reviewed the processes leading up to, during and after the oyster deaths during earlier 2004. It was clear almost immediately that the government authorities were out of their depth. For example, there were conflicting reports about the distance of the helicopter crash site from waterways (Appendix 2; Walker (nd)). Distances ranged from 180m (Appendix 2) to 250m (Parsley 2004) and up to 1km (Walker nd).

A response from a government official suggested the crash site was a contaminated site (Appendix 3). This action was later declined (Appendix 4).

When concerns about drinking water quality were raised with Dr. R Taylor (Director of Public Health Tasmania) he suggested to Dr. Bleaney she was scaremongering and being alarmist (Appendix 5). When community members sought to discover the role of the local Environmental Heath Officer in follow up regarding the helicopter crash incident, they were told that no action was taken as the officer was on holidays (pers comms, Environmental Health Officer (Mr Walker) to Dr Bleaney). Contact with the officer during April 2004 revealed that he was not aware of the potential seriousness of the spill (caused by the helicopter crash). He stated, "In relation to your specific questions as Council was not aware of the spill no procedures or testing were initiated as Council was unaware there was a potential water contamination issue..." (Walker nd).

This further supports the assertion that little in the way of effective emergency response actually exists, particularly with respect to follow up actions such as water sampling and general monitoring to assess possible impacts (particularly on potable water). Instead, what we saw bordered on a dismissal of community concerns (Walker 2004). The attacks following the release of the Scammell report (Scammell 2004) further demonstrated government officials in difficulty.

Key Issues and concerns

Our key issue of concern relates to the lack of preparedness by State and Local Government to deal with issues that affect public health and local industry. It is ironic that the protocols that were in place were not used, nor is there any evidence that steps were taken to operationalise the existing protocol (Department of Health Services, Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment and Local Government 2003). The delay in advising the Spray Information and Referral Unit (Parsley, 2004) is of great concern, and demonstrates systemic failure on the part of local and State authorities.

In the case of the Percival (2004) report, chemicals from forestry and agriculture were seen as potential factors in oyster ill health. The Percival report also acknowledges the complex and integrated nature of the problem. This, along with the findings from the Scammell report (2004) supports our ongoing calls for integrated risk assessment. A recent community based audit (Nicklason et al 2004) of proposed forestry activities on the Blue Tier (an area in the Highlands above St. Helens) raised serious concerns as to likely impacts of forestry operations on riverine systems and water quality and quantity .

Conclusions and Recommendations

It was clear from a review of the reports (Percival 2004; Scammell 2004) as well as key informant reports that non-effective protocols existed for dealing with chemical spills in the catchment. It was also clear that no systematic nor in-depth inquiry has been undertaken to determine the root causes of ongoing oyster deaths. Of equal concern is the lack of a clear risk assessment relating to the activities in upper catchments, particularly those practices where chemicals are used. Given the ongoing issues in other catchments around the state (Gschwendtner et al 2001; Dockray et al 2001; Dockray 2001), one would have expected the State and Local Governments to have implemented a risk management strategy several years ago. The fact that large sums of public funds have been expended on catchment management also adds to the concern.

The following quote from Dr. Alison Bleaney (local doctor at St. Helens) sums up the situation regarding protocol:

"Originally we were told there were no Protocols. Ian had to get a copy from Dorset [Council] (Department of Health Services, Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment and Local Government. 2003). Asked the council why this had not happened (invoking of the Protocol) - they stated that the Environmental Health Officer had been on holiday at the time. Police could give us no sensible reason as to why they had not reported the incident. Volunteer Fire Officers - had not reported as the police were there".

Using the helicopter crash as an example, it would appear that no effective notification or alert system actually exists at the local government level. Questioning on this matter has drawn a blank response, other than the Incident Report produced by the Tasmania Fire Service (Tasmania Fire Service 2003). The lack of coordination and failure to activate the Response Protocol (Department of Health Services, Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment and Local Government 2003) further supports our assertion that systemic failure exists. This is further supported by the fact that many weeks elapsed before the relevant authorities (Parsley 2004) were advised. Instead, what we saw were essentially untrained people making on the spot judgments without objective knowledge of the extent of the chemical related problems at the crash site. Parsley himself says as much. Other evidence gathered by Dr. Bleaney, found that official conjecture and wild guesswork had to suffice in the absence of proper, scientifically based systems of inquiry. The irony is that many such systems were already in place (Department of Health Services, Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment and Local Government. 2003), but not effectively utilised.

In terms of "after the fact" follow up actions, one would expect to see an integrated root cause analysis, including critical review of response protocol, as an essential step in the revised risk assessment process, particularly given the thrust of the Percival report (2004). Instead, the best that could be offered was water sampling well after the event, and then only through public pressure. To date there has been no attempt to analyse sediments and silts in the bay in order to determine whether or not pesticides had been transported into the bay via absorption onto silt (Burton and Landrum 2003), thus representing a potential cause of oyster mortality. Given the fact that oysters are filter feeders this would seem a worthwhile hypothesis. That said, other sources of potential toxics entering the estuarine system also need to be considered.

Overall a regrettable and disappointing effort on the part of our governments and custodians of public and environmental health. Accordingly, we recommend the following: