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Upper Catchment Issues Vol 3 No 3 - Introduction

Author: Tasmanian Community Resource Auditors Incorporated


The issue of water contamination is a global problem. In Australia, as with many other countries, adequate access to clean water is becoming an increasing challenge, not only from the perspective of human needs, but also the needs of the wider environment. It is now understood that human activity continues to have substantial impacts on natural systems throughout the world. The most recent example appears to be the negative impacts arising from the ensemble of phenomena known as climate change. Knowledge about the impacts of human activity on the fragile Australian landscape (and its ecological systems) has been available for many years (Williams 1961; Ecologically Sustainable Development Steering Committee, 1992) . It is now clear that human impacts are many and varied, with concerns over the use of synthetically made chemicals continuing to be expressed by communities both here in Australia and throughout the world. As fresh water continues to become increasingly scarce, and with the intensity of human activity on the rise, these concerns will not abate, particularly where there is clear evidence of negative impacts. As suggested earlier, it is not only human heath and welfare that may be at risk, but natural ecosystems are also under threat.

Pollution of groundwater, stream water, and estuarine systems is of great concern both in Australia and globally. The European Union (E.U.) has acknowledged problems caused by pesticides in water catchments, including groundwater contamination (Environmental News Network 2006). Many E.U. countries have introduced legislation banning the use of certain pesticides, such as atrazine , in an attempt to ensure safe water for human consumption and agriculture. In Australia the use of pesticides in water catchments continues to be legally permitted. In some instances the authorities have increased the health value of certain pesticides, e.g. atrazine (a member of the triazine group of pesticides). It is of concern that on the one hand the Australian Pesticides and Veterinarian Medicines Authority (APVMA) has increased the health value of certain pesticides (e.g. atrazine from 20 to 40 ppb in 2004) in our drinking water, while on the other the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG) state that, "little information is available on the effects of human exposure to organic and inorganic compounds, including pesticides, at the concentration likely to occur in water". This apparent anomaly (and there are many others) raises concerns relating to legitimacy of the codes, regulations and guidelines that resource managers and community are either obliged or compelled to follow. The significance of this for human and environmental toxicology will be discussed further on in this paper.

A range of pesticides is used to support forestry and agricultural management practices within the State. Several communities across Tasmania have shown that their water supplies have been polluted by pesticides (Bleaney 2005; Eastman and Walsh 2006) and that impacts of forestry activities continue to place significant risks on water yield and quality (Gschwendtner et al 2001).

Industrial Forestry is now a prominent feature in many of the water catchments in Tasmania, with further expansion mooted in the near future (Gunns Integrated Impact Statement, July 2006 ). Many communities continue to express concern over what some believe is an industry that has become far too dominant and acts to the detriment of the health and economic fortunes of the State (Gschwendtner et al 2001; Dockray 2001; Dockray et al 2001; Nicklason et al 2004).

The primary focus of this paper relates to the risks associated with chemical usage by the forest and agriculture industries in water catchments, with particular focus on the Break O' Day (BOD) Municipality, situated in North East Tasmania, Australia (see Figure 1). Of particular concern are upper catchments, where water collects as runoff after rainfall or is released from groundwater reserves. To date there has been little in the way of risk assessment by the authorities in relation to pesticide use and management within the Break O'Day catchments. This, along with events discussed later in this paper, has placed the community and the environment at what the author argues to be an unreasonable risk of damage and possible loss. These issues initiated a community inquiry into the nature and extent of risks associated with pesticide use in the catchments.

This paper presents the findings of this inquiry, the aim of which was to critically evaluate the ability of our authorities to both quantify and manage the risks associated with chemical usage in the water catchments from which the Break O' Day community and its industries draw water.

The inquiry was conducted using a Community Based Auditing (CBA) approach (Tattersall 2003(a); Gschwendtner et al 2001). CBA involves a process of critical investigation where community members gather information which is then interpreted in terms of community expectations, legislation, regulation, guidelines, and the principles of sustainability and best practice.

This audit proposes recommendations for improvement in the methods authorities use to manage the risks associated with chemical usage in water catchments in the St. Helens area of North Eastern Tasmania and beyond. The audit presents and critically analyses the roles and functions of Local, State, and Federal authorities that responded to questions during the inquiry.