Senate debates

Monday, 15 March 2010


Photo of Julian McGauranJulian McGauran (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! It being 9.50 pm, I propose the question:

That the Senate do now adjourn.

9:50 pm

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a convenient opportunity for me to continue a subject that I raised in the adjournment debate on 23 February. This followed two successive Australian Story episodes, which were directed at claims that there were substances affecting the water in the George River in Tasmania. The second of those programs, on 22 February, suggested that certain research had been conducted which indicated that foam on the surface of the George River contained a substance which researchers traced to a eucalyptus species, Eucalyptus nitens. This eucalyptus was growing in plantations in about 3.7 per cent, but less than five per cent, of the entire catchment for the George River. Researchers believed that they were able to establish a connection between that small proportion of the catchment and its eucalypt plantations and the substance in the water.

As the river provides drinking water for the town of St Helens on the east coast of Tasmania, one can imagine that a significant amount of concern was expressed by members of that community. The chief public health officer in Tasmania, Tasmanian public health director Dr Roscoe Taylor, indicated a number of things in response to the public concern, including that there would be carbon filters applied to the water supplied as drinking water, and for other purposes, to the community in St Helens. He indicated that he had contacted the researchers who made the claims, including Dr Alison Bleaney, who is a medical practitioner in St Helens. Dr Taylor said to the public that he had been referred to lawyers for those who made the claims—Dr Bleaney and Marcus Scammell, a marine ecologist who conducted some of the research.

I indicated in a previous contribution in this place that I was concerned that if there were claims about the public health status of the water and there was research material that was the basis of the claims—claims which were made public and which were concerning the public and which were, frankly, affecting the reputation of the town of St Helens through concerns about the potential health impacts of the water supply—then that material should be supplied. I observed in the media in the days following that contribution that there had been a change of heart by those who made the claims about the status of the water supply and I was content that there would be proper assessment of the material on which they based those claims so that if there were indeed any matters of substance they could be understood and addressed. This is not least because the claims were suggesting that the species Eucalyptus nitens in plantations had been genetically altered in some way, which seemed to transmogrify in some people’s minds to ‘genetically modified’ in some sense. Given that the species is found not just in that catchment but in many parts of Tasmania that feed into many water supplies, I felt that it was urgent that this matter be addressed.

As I said, I thought that it was going to be addressed and the material provided. That seemed to be indicated in the media in the ensuing days. As I recall, Dr Roscoe Taylor gave such an indication. In addition, members of that community started to buy bottled water to avoid having to consume the town’s water. Dr Taylor talked of the addition of carbon filters to the water supply—or rather he pointed out that they were there at that time. A number of other statements were made.

What we have seen since—given that there has obviously been an attempt to assure the public that the matter will be properly examined, that there is proper filtration of the water and that water tested below the surface where water is extracted for drinking purposes does not show any such contamination—is people in the community backing up the original claims. A Mr Andrew Lohrey seemed to be a source for an article in the Victorian Weekly Times suggesting that the eucalypts had been genetically modified. Mr Lohrey and another gentleman seem to be intent on attacking the defender of public health in Tasmania, Dr Roscoe Taylor, and in fact called for his resignation. This is quite bizarre. We know that there is a state election on and some people clearly believe that this is a matter in which there can be some political advantage gained. Perhaps, in a politically partisan way they are seeking to politicise these activities for the purpose of gaining a few votes. It is inappropriate in my view to do so. It is inappropriate to attack the chief public health officer in Tasmania, the director of public health.

Dr Taylor was reported in the Launceston Examiner as responding to some of those claims. He is quoted as saying:

St Helens residents needed answers, not personal attacks.

I could not agree more with that claim.

He said that he had made efforts to obtain more information on a water quality investigation of the George River funded by St Helens general practitioner Alison Bleaney, marine ecologist Marcus Scammell and East Coast oyster farmers.

He is quoted as saying:

Unfortunately, these efforts to date have yielded only scant information, with law firm Slater and Gordon apparently awaiting instructions from their client.

This is many days after the initial claims were made and many days after it was suggested that there would not be a problem getting the information. He went on to say:

It seems bizarre to me that I am being criticised for endeavouring to provide reliable information to the St Helens community in the aftermath of a situation where a media program has aroused human health concerns well in advance of any scientific confirmation.

There has been some suggestion, and I think Senator Milne said it here in the chamber in another debate, that there is some bias on the part of Dr Taylor and that he has not properly investigated claims in the past about atroscine in the water supply—claims which have been found to be baseless. But nevertheless those claims were made. The article went on to say:

Dr Taylor said Environmental Protection Authority chairman John Ramsay had established a panel of five independent scientists who would hand down an interim report next month on a review of the recent water tests.


So why the delay? With five independent scientists going to review the information, why would those scientists, if they have a genuine concern about public health, be holding back that information? Frankly, I really think it is time for it to be provided, or the Tasmanian community can take the view that there is something other than public health concern behind the publication of this material and that there should be some serious questioning of the veracity of the research. That is where it is at the moment. It is incumbent upon those people to supply the material to the public health authorities or back off.