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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:

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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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