The Sun was Shining on the Sea

This piece, which appeared in the Tasmanian Times in 2010, was my first published work.  It is a 2100 word investigation into the possible contamination of a river in north-western Tasmania.   

(joshpringle.com)
The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright–
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

Karl Mathiesen

5/7/2010

There’s something odd going on in the George River and there’s something even odder
going on out of it.  Trying to decipher the investigation into why the river is toxic is like trying to make sense of a Lewis Carroll poem.  Come for a wander along the beach, if you don’t get it, don’t worry, no-one seems to.

The George River trickles out of the Rattler Range in north-eastern Tasmania.  Gathering volume and speed it flows through tall stands of Eucalyptus Nitens plantation forest.  Emerging onto pastureland the George meets the Ransom.  It then flows sedately (and now toxically) into the oyster-laden bay which bears its name.

In February Australian Story reported on the travails of two doctors who have spent much of the last decade raising concerns about strange occurrences within the catchment.  Drs Alison Bleaney GP and Marcus Scammell became worried after a dramatic rise in oyster mortality in the late 1990s coincided with an observed rise in the cancer rate in the Break O Day municipality.  A preliminary investigation by the Government concluded that it was freshwater inundation from floods that was killing the oysters.  The oyster farmers in the area disagreed, saying that it was usual for oysters to survive and even thrive through periods of flood.  Something, they said, was wrong with the water.

In 2004 Bleaney, a local GP, and Scammell, a Sydney based marine ecologist, released a report called Environmental Problems Georges Bay, Tasmania, otherwise known as the Bleaney-Scammell Review or BSR.  They were worried that pesticides sprayed on the plantation forests in the upper catchment could be contaminating the river.  They also noted that there was a strange co-incidence of environmental health events – human cancer, oyster death and the emergence of the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease.

Rather than investigate the report the Tasmanian Government has worked very hard to discredit the doctors.  The pair have since pooled their resources and compiled a large body of research which attests that there is something seriously wrong with the George River.  It appears that, in addition to pesticide pollution, there is a toxin drifting downstream.  Bleaney says that the toxin, when mixed with pulses of pesticides which occur during rain periods, can have compound effects on health right through the ecosystem.  The toxins can cross through tissue membranes.  This could have “unpredictable, unexplained effects.”  Bleaney and Scammell’s research was conducted through six independent laboratories.  It found that the toxin occurs in the leaves of Eucalyptus Nitens.  Bleaney says that during their investigation the Nitens tree was the only source of the toxin they could find in the catchment.

This was the story which was released on the ABC’s Australian Story program.  If the science proves to be valid (and Bleaney insists “the labs have been meticulous”) then the Tasmanian Government will have spent six years and many resources on discrediting two private citizens who have been raising legitimate public health and environmental concerns.

The Nitens tree is a fast growing eucalypt imported from Victoria.  Contrary to recent media reports the plants are in no way genetically modified.  Forestry Industries Association of Tasmania Chief Executive, Terry Edwards, says “there are no genetically modified trees growing in Tasmania.”  He says to do so would breach a governmental moratorium on GM crops and would require FIAT to apply for a special government permit.  The plants have been selectively bred in order to produce maximum yield.  Just as farmers breed the largest and healthiest cattle “the selection process that occurs is selecting the fastest growing seedlings”.  According to Edwards the chemistry of the leaf undergoes only a minute change if any at all.  When asked whether or not this selective breeding process could be a contributing factor to any water contamination issue he said simply: “No”.  In a letter to Australian Story before the program went to air he repeated that there was no genetic modification of the trees.  The program asserted that the trees were ‘genetically improved’ and did not offer qualification of this term.  According to Australian Story there is evidence of “subtle differences in chemistry with the leaves”.  In the program Dr Chris Hickey from New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research says that these differences between Tasmanian and Victorian trees have nothing to with their toxicity but rather contribute to the stability of the surface foam in which toxins are transported.  FIAT has since called for the matter to be investigated by the federal and state governments.

The original BSR, Bleaney says, “was never a scientific document at all.”  The BSR “might have been flawed but jeepers, we couldn’t have done any more than that with no money, no resources.”  Rather it was a series of observations of environmental and human health anomalies occurring within one river catchment at the same time.  “A lot of science starts from observation,” says Bleaney.  “You see an apple fall from a tree and you start to wonder.”  It just so happens that this apple might be rotten.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

During the premiership of Paul Lennon a review of the BSR was commissioned by the Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment.  The DPIWE review, conducted by Professor Paolo Ricci, focussed entirely on the nature of the BSR rather than its content and the issues raised within.  “The BSR lacks scientific credibility and should not be used for policy analysis,” said Ricci.  He goes on to make recommendations on the manner in which further research should be conducted.  However that was enough for the Government.  It gave them the ammunition they needed to silence the doctors and their supporters.

The following is an exchange recorded on Hansard between MPs Nick McKim, David Llewellyn and Steve Kons in the House of Assembly in March 2007.  It refers to the Percival report which supported the observations of Bleaney and Scammell.

“Mr McKim [Greens MP]- ‘Members will recall the Percival Report, which was commissioned from a scientist within the then Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment.  Members will also recall that I actually released that report on behalf of the Government and members will further recall that Dr Percival made it very clear in that report that it was not just freshwater inundation that resulted in a massive death of oysters in Georges Bay.’
Mr Llewellyn [Deputy Premier]- ‘Remember that I said I don’t agree with him.’
Mr McKim – ‘I know that you do not agree with him, Minister, and that is very interesting because what that says to me is that you commission research from within your department and if it suits you politically you agree with it but if it does not suit you politically you disagree with it.  That is what that says to me.  Interestingly, what you cannot do is provide any scientific rebuttal -’
Mr Llewellyn – ‘There is scientific rebuttal.’
Mr Kons [Minister for Primary Industry, Water and the Environment] – ‘Paolo Ricci.’”
What is interesting is that Ricci’s review was concerned solely with the BSR.  There is no mention of the Percival Report.  Llewellyn claimed that the Ricci review offered scientific rebuttal to a report which found that there was something other than George River floodwaters causing oyster deaths.  The Ricci review was never designed to address the oyster death issue.  As Ricci stated:
“This review is based solely and entirely on the material contained in the report Environmental Problems Georges Bay, Tasmania.”
The Government used the Ricci report as a comprehensive repudiation of any suggestion that further research needed to be conducted in the catchment.  The Ricci report is available from the DPIPWE (they added Parks this year) website (http://www.dpiw.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/Attachments/LBUN-63C9LL?open).  Tasmanian Times contacted the Department in order to find out how much the taxpayer had paid Professor Ricci and received this reply:
“As for your questions, it’s not this Department’s policy to put public servants up for student assignment interviews whether those requests be written or in person. The staff are busy in the conduct of their jobs, as I’m sure you would appreciate.”

The only other place the Ricci report is available is on the website of Croplife Australia.  Croplife is the major lobby group for the pesticide industry.  Bleaney describes them as “the heavy mob”.  They represent corporations like Monsanto, Du Pont and Syngenta.  The Lennon Government essentially funded a lobby paper for these polluters.  More worryingly for Tasmanians is that in their attempts to discredit Bleaney and Scammell they employed combative tactics usually reserved for these heavy-weight lobby groups.
“My commitment to you is that I welcome frank and fearless advice,” said Premier David Bartlett to the Tasmanian Public Service in February 2009.  This issue is a true test of that statement.  It is also a test of Bartlett’s commitment to move away from the bullying tactics that were considered a characteristic of his predecessor Paul Lennon.
“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

The George River Water Quality Panel was convened in March at Bartlett’s request.  Their brief was to establish a process “to address the scientific research issues raised in the “Australian Story” ABC television program”.  That the Tasmanian Premier is taking his cues from a current affairs program illustrates the bizarre nature of this affair.  Bleaney explains that she used to believe that the media was a waste of time. “That you could write the science and that would be enough.”  Clearly Bleaney felt that the only way to force the Government’s hand was to circumvent the process by going to the media.

Due to release an interim report on Monday May 31, the panel announced on Friday May 28 that it would be delaying for a month in order to wait for some “outstanding information”.

This information is being provided by the Director of Public Health Dr Roscoe Taylor.  As Dr Andrew Lohrey and Robert Belcher have already said in Tasmanian Times the Director has his reputation at stake here.  On Bleaney’s observations of a cancer cluster in the Break O Day area Taylor has argued consistently that “there has been nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary or adverse trends”.  He has also repeatedly said that the water in the catchment is safe to drink.  He also requested the Tasmanian Government supply funding so that carbon powder can be added to the water to remove harmful substances.  Just in case.  Taylor’s latest press release on the issue can be found at http://www.bodc.tas.gov.au.  It repeats the phrases “no scientific evidence”, “it is not clear” and “no evidence” constantly throughout his release.  Still framing the argument through the prism of the Ricci report.

The public relations company Font PR, which is managing the Panel’s media communications, has confirmed that the Ricci report is one of the documents that the Panel have been referring to during their investigations.

Bleaney’s response to the delay was that they were stalling.  “My expectations are limited,” she said.  “I’m becoming very cynical.  What gets me is that we’re six years down the track and we’re still arguing about whether to get serious about this toxin or not.  Sticking your head in the sand is actually counterproductive.”

On Tuesday June 30 the Panel released their findings.  The official word is that there is no further investigation needed.  Bleaney calls it a good summary of the science so far, “all then wrapped up in politics”.  Greens water spokesman Tim Morris has said that this highlights the need for an independent body to investigate water health issues.  The question Tasmanians will ask is – isn’t that the government’s job?  Why should we need an independent panel to look into…  Hang on:

“About the Panel:  A panel of eminent, independent [emphasis added] scientists has been brought together to address scientific research issues linked to water quality in the George River.”

What is happening in the George River is odd.  The governmental reaction has been even stranger.  Why has the Tasmanian Government allowed this issue to continue for so long?  And why has it consistently undermined the work of Drs Bleaney and Scammell?  It is not because the public is ambivalent.  Bartlett cited “public concern” sparked by the Australian Story program as the motivating factor in convening the Panel.  Why are we delaying while a river may be poisoning itself and us?  Nonsense.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

(The Walrus and the Carpenter was first published in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll in 1872.  Walk along the unswept beach at http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/walrus.html)

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