1985 December – 1986 January: Condobolin (NSW) 600 sq km Spray Drift. Suspected Pesticides: Glyphosate, 2,4-D,

Sydney Morning Herald Jan 26 1986

Damage Leaves Farmers Facing Huge Losses – Health Fears after Stray Strips Trees

Outside Condobolin in the State’s dry west, farmers believe they have been victims of one of NSW’s worst environmental accidents involving herbicides.

Farmers on more than 50 properties say that tens of thousands of valuable trees have lost 10 to 100 per cent of their leaves and may not survive.

They say the damage extends about 35 kilometres to the north and 25km west of the town – a massive 600 square kilometre area.

And it stops only 2km from Condobolin.

The NSW Health Department has also been called to see if there is any contamination of household water supplies.

The Department of Agriculture has a large team investigating the case and minister Jack Hallam has told the investigators to spare no effort in finding the cause of the damage.

Finally, more than 70 local people are looking at ways to recoup what they say are substantial losses.

With recent reports raising the question of a link between herbicides and birth abnormalities at Coffs Harbour, the property owners are also concerned about the long-term effects on people.

Mr Angus McDonald, from the Orange office of the Department of Agriculture, said of the damaged area: It’s the largest one I’ve seen.”

A spokesman for the landholders, Mr Noel Winters, said property owners had begun noticing kurrajongs and wilgas losing their leaves and lucerne crops and household gardens dying about a week before Christmas.

“There was a strong south-westerly wind blowing at the time and the damage started showing up on the south-west side of the trees,” he said.

The farmers believe that damage may be due to herbicide spray drifting from one area. The area’s largest property was known to be aerial crop dusting for several days at the time and the farmers believe the spraying was done in conditions that were too hot and too windy.

Mr Winters said: “We don’t know exactly what caused the problems but it looks very much like the effect of a mixture of two herbicides – Ester 80 and Roundup.”

One affected farmer, Mr Harold Buckland, said he could feel a wet clamminess on the buildings on his property.” The wind was howling and it was stinging my eyes.”

Mr Buckland said half the trees in the 600 sq km area were affected. It would take up to 12 months to see how and if they would recover.

But the greatest tragedy was that the trees most valuable to property owners were the ones most damaged – the kurrajongs.

Kurrajongs are highly prized as feed for livestock during drought. Large trees can take 100 years to grow. At this time of year they are usually so leafy a cockatoo could fly into them and not be seen.

Landowners estimate that a large kurrajong provides feed equivalent to 30 bales of hay in drought. With hay selling at up to $7 a bale during drought, it is not hard to estimate their worth.

At “Grainee”, Mr David Greig has over 400 kurrajongs damaged.

Mr Colin Sleep, the manager of “Kiargather”, the property the farmers believe responsible for the spray drift, said herbicides had been sprayed over 10,700 hectares in four days.

He said a mixture of Ester 80 and Roundup had been used but he denied that spraying had been done under unfavourable circumstances: “We used people with a lot of experience in spraying. They stopped themselves on three occasions when they thought conditions were unfavourable. They went to great lengths to ensure that they just sprayed the target.”

He said what had occured had been extraordinary and unpredictable.

“We took all reasonable precautions.”

The Registrar of Pesticides, Mr Harvey Baker, said Mr Hallam had been informed as soon as it was thought that spray drift might have occured.

“There is no doubt that drift damage has occurred,” Mr Baker said. But it was difficult to know how much of the damage was due to herbicide drift and how much to very dry weather.

The regional health surveyor for the Central Western Region, Mr David Chowes, said that two of three water samples taken from the area had shown traces of 2,4-D.

In the third case, the property owner had allowed the first rain after the spraying to run on to the ground.

In the other two cases, 2,4-D was found but at less than half the maximum allowable limit of 100 micrograms per litre.