A welcoming sign at the gateway to Yarram, in the butter and cream belt of Gippsland, boasts of the district’s unspoiled charm. But not far away, across the thick pine forests, lies the secluded Hiawatha Valley where other signs show that all is not well – dead trees, dying vegetation and an absence of bird life.
For more than 20 years the Lands Department has conducted a programme of herbicide spraying in Hiawatha Valley, using among other chemicals, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, components of the military defoliant Agent Orange. Either or both chemicals were also used in Agent White, Agent Pink, Agent Green and Agent Purple, the defoliants used in the Vietnam War.
As a result of the spraying residents claim a picture book setting in the Strzeleckis has suffered what took place in South Vietnam. The spraying has continued here, as in other parts of the State, in an attempt to control blackberries and weeds such as ragwort.
But the deaths of five workers engaged in spraying over the past three years has raised community concern about the possible health hazards associated with herbicides.
Around Yarram, which was at the centre of a birth deformity scare four years ago, the controversy has been renewed by a small group of women who say the drift from continued spraying is destroying their haven in the mountains.
They claim the volume of chemicals poured on to Crown Land bordering their properties has defoliated and killed trees and taken its toll of stock.
Some of the cattle grazing in the area suffer deformities and owners say that abnormally high numbers of stock have had to be destroyed due to paralysis and unexplained sickness.
Those who came to live in the hill country near Hiawatha in the 1960’s remember when their bowl-shaped valley was filled with greenery.
Banksias and ferns lined the gravel tracks that climb up to the cottages of the valley’s inhabitants.
Sturdy blackwoods, wattles and gums stood in the paddocks and willows hung over the Little Albert river that tumbles through the valley.
From a white-painted “A” bridge over the river, children fished for gudgeon.
A former resident of the valley, Mrs Joan Osborne, speaks of the time when birds made a din in the trees outside ber bedroom window each morning.
“It was spectacular, just gorgeous,” she said: “To think we used to complain about the noise – now you can hardly hear a bird at all.”
Today, the two towering trees that shaded their old farmhouse are stark skeletons.
The statuesque gums are gaunt; the wattles bereft of their former glory.
And the willows are nowhere to be seen. Now they are no more than images in Mrs Osborne’s old snapshots.
Another resident in Hiawatha Valley, Miss Rene Woollard, is a fiercely independent and, to her detractors, somewhat eccentric spinster. She led the way to her tangled garden and pointed to the exaggerated growth of a mahogany gum.
Its branches were splayed and contorted.
Next to it, the top half of an English yew was dying.
Miss Wollard reached up and picked a handful of sickly leaves, crinkling at the edges. She indicated several brown spots: “That’s where it was hit by the drift. It is funnelled into this valley by the air currents – it’s completely uncontrollable,” she said.
Miss Woollard came to live in the valley at Stacey’s Bridge, 20 kilometres from Yarram, in 1966 with her late brother, Laurie. They planned to start a nursery and market garden on a 20-hectare property.
Soon after they took delivery of $8000 worth of plants, the Lands Department began spraying weeds and blackberry bushes. Now she has only 30 trees left.
In the early 1970s the department began spraying 2,4,5-T by air in the Hiawatha valley with devastating results for the locals.
Mrs Osborne recorded the date of the blitz, on Crown land about half a kilometre from the Osborne’s dairy farm: 16/12/71.
“My garden was as good as wiped right out,” said Mrs Osborne. “All the choice plants and shrubs were the worst affected; the delphiniums, dahlias and 24 new roses I’d bought the year before, plus all the vegetable garden…”
The valley’s trees started to die following aerial spraying, she said.
Mrs Osborne noticed that a koala colony, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and lyrebirds disappeared from the area. Fish in the Little Albert River vanished, as did the bird life.
Then, two weeks after the spraying, Mrs Osborne replaced the water in the goldfish bowl with some taken from their drinking tanks. In the morning the fish were all dead. She believes their household water was poisoned when the spray drifted on to their roof and was washed into the tanks with the first rain.
The spraying continued throughout the early 1970s and on one occasion, Mrs Osborne said, a plane emptied its load over her car as she drove the children to school.
“There was a fine white mist all over the car and windscreen and I had to use the wipers to see where I was driving,” she said.
On 18 October, 1974, private contractors arrived in the Hiawatha area, looking for aerial spraying work.
Despite written protests from Mrs Osborne they went ahead – at 4.30pm on 21 October, she noted – and sprayed a property about two kilometres away for one and a half hours.
“Almost immediately we got the drift as there was a southeast breeze blowing direclty from the sprayed area towards ours and Miss Woollard’s property,” Mrs Osborne said.
Unknown to her at the time, she said, it was to be the beginning of years of agony and emotional trauma from which she feels she may never recover.
“While the aerial spraying was being carried out I spent all the time in the garden watering down shrubs and plants hoping to save them.”
Three days later her face developed a severe rash. “My face burned and stung like a severe sun burn and looked like a dried up paper bag with a rash,” she said.
Twice Mrs Osborne has had pre-cancerous cells burned from her face and neck, which caused her a month of pain and embarrassment.
A doctor’s certificate diagnosed what at the time appeared to be allergic contact dermatitis following aerial spraying.
Since being exposed to herbicide sprays Mrs Osborne says, her health has deteriorated. She is nervous, she gets depressed, her memory and concentration is bad and her bones ache. A doctor has also told her she has brain damage.
Mrs Osborne, her husband Dave and family moved to a smaller property near Traralgon in 1977 to escape the drift, a move she thought would also see an improvement in her health.
“After more than four years I am worse if anything. I know now that I will never be well again.”
Miss Woollard’s three-roomed home sits half-way up the slopes of the valley, obscured from the road by a tangle of blackberries.
She has been an indefatigable fighter for the abolition of herbicides for 15 years, a stand which she says has isolated her from much of the farming community.
“People refer to me at ‘that silly old duck up the mountains’ but I’m not afraid,” she said.
Miss Woollard, whose farm upbringing taught her to be cautious with all poisons, became concerned about chemical sprays when she saw the effect it was having on her sheep and cattle.
It’s all written down in an old ledger book: the spastic calves, the 15 cows she had shot by a neighbour because of calving paralysis, the deformities too distasteful to mention.
A stroll around her paddocks revealed further shocks.
A Friesian bull, which was sprayed with 2,4,5-T in 1967 while tethered by the roadside, developed a tumour-like growth on its back. “His daughter was born in 1980 with blisters,” Miss Woollard said.
Miss Woollard produced a steer’s skull with a grotesque bone deformity under its jaw. She claimed it was rapid bone cancer, which developed after the animal was exposed to herbicide.
She motioned to a pen where an emaciated cow, ribs protruding through its dull, matted coat, tottered about on shaky hindlegs: “I found her upside down in a gully in 1975. She’s never put on fat due to a breakdown in her metabolism.”
However, Dr Bill Parsons, a member of the Vermin and Noxious Weeds Destruction Board, who has visited the valley, said: “There’s no way the drift from those phenoxy herbicides would kill those trees.”
Dr Parsons said he had been told by the Agriculture Department that the deformed steer skull was “a classic case of lumpy jaw” and not bone cancer as Miss Woollard claimed.
Joan Osborne said that when her family first settled at Stacey’s Bridge, the Lands Department threatened to prosecute farmers if they did not spray with 2,4,5-T or 2,4-D.
But after using Lands Department equipment to spray grass on their property, the Osbornes became suspicious when their cows did not become pregnant.
In their last winter at the farm, they lost 100 of their dairy herd. The cows suddenly contracted an unknown illness.
Both Miss Woollard and Mrs Osborne said 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D were often mixed far stronger than recommended.
“It was left to unskilled people who just swished it around as if it was water,” Miss Woollard said.
Mrs Osborne added: “The Crown Land at the back of our home must have been sprayed as strongly as Vietnam to defoliate and kill the huge gums.”
The irony was that throughout the spraying campaigns, year in, year out, the ragwort continued to grow.
Between 1975 and 1976, a number of babies were born with major deformities soon after the Yarram district had been sprayed from the air with 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. The babies died. Two doctors found that the frequency of neural tube disorders was 10 times the world rate. They found the Yarram abnormality rate among living children was at least twice the national average.
In March 1978, following a controversy over the deformities, the then Minister for Health, Mr Houghton, announced an inquiry which found no evidence linking the birth defects and herbicides spraying.
But scientists and doctors who took a close interest in the inquiry criticised it for a lack of thoroughness. The report said the malformations did not suggest a specific local cause. It also said that three abnormal babies among 93 deliveries at Yarram was a one in 500 probability which could happen by chance.
An ACTU-Trades Hall Council occupational health and safety unit report on the use of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, released last year said:
“It is necessary to point out that the data analysed in the Yarram Report are mortality rather than incidence data. There is, as yet, no systematic collection of incidence data on such abnormalities throughout Australia.
“Further, as the majority of malformed foetuses are aborted, spontaneous abortions must be considered simultaneously with the numbers of live-born malformed children if credible judgements are to be made. The Yarram Report fails to recognise the importance of abortion information and consequently exempts it from analyses and conclusions.”