1994 June: Derby Water Supply Contaminated. Pesticide: Atrazine.

Atrazine: How We Won the (Media) War – Peter Coxhead

Native Forest News – Native Forest Network 1995

Forestry Spraying Atrazine – the world’s most widely-used herbicide – is currently under moratorium in Tasmania. Forestry spraying of Atrazine in plantations accounts for 85% of application while the remaining 15% is used by industry, private individuals and muncipal councils. Despite frequent incidents in the past, little or no coverage or waterway contamination occurred, until the community at Lorinna gained a great deal of publicity when their water supply was contaminated from forestry spraying. This event was to have a profound affect on public response to the following events in the Derby township in July 1994.

Atrazine: How We Won the (Media) War – Peter Coxhead

In June 1994 the newly-corporatised Forestry Tasmania (FT) sprayed 53 hectares of clearfell located 7km above Derby’s water storage at Cascade Dam. Prior to spraying FT notified local council of their intentions. The council, responsible for water quality, failed to notify residents, one of whom approached FT to substantiate what was still a rumour and to find out what results had shown up downstream of the spray site. FT confirmed spraying and refused to release the results. In the hope of forcing out the information, residents went to the media, since, subsequent to Lorinna, FT had promised to release all spray results to the public. During the three months that followed we had 63 newspaper articles and considerable radio and TV coverage.

The initial FT response to the media campaign was to claim that the dilution factor and Derby’s distant storage site meant that our water would not show contamination. Twenty days later, atrazine appeared in the town’s taps. The next council meeting witnessed residents spilling out of the chamber, down the corridor and into the street – quite a change. The council wrote to FT requesting a moratorium. In reply FT sought a closed meeting with all councilors and from that day onward, at the mention of the word Atrazine they would all chant “council does not want Atrazine – or any othert chemical – in our water supplies, but we take our advice from the state Health and Environment Departments.” This may have eased their conscience, but didn’t do much for the residents.

The media campaign had Atrazine’s manufacturer Ciba Geigy desperately trying to explain that countries were mistaken in their banning of the herbicide, and that it couldn’t harm anyone. Especially not those people in Italy with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, nor those in Kansas with bowel – or was it uterine? – cancer. They seemed especially concerned to point out that the Atrazine rain in the US – and Atrazine fog in Europe – were only a result of naughty farmers who used the stuff incorrectly. Maybe the fact that 75% of US water bores are contaminated with this farmer’s friend was a clerical error.

Then we released information from the manufacturers that the metabolites of Atrazine – what it breaks down into – were more than twice as toxic as the compound itself. Ciba Geigy called a private meeting in Melbourne (off the island) with their PR lackeys along with FT, North Forest Products, the Health Department and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). FT agreed to send a list of the names of pests such as us – totaling hundreds – hoping we might be influenced by Ciba Geigy propaganda. Some government employees at the meeting agreed to lobby politicians to try and ease the pain for Ciba Geigy.

By then the Australian Medical Association had come out against the spraying of Atrazine. Dozens of us in Derby sent letters of liability to the company, forestry, council, departments of health and environment, telling them we held them legally responsible for the disaster. We held a public meeting with FT who offered a water tanker for us to drink from, which they retracted when it seemed we might accept. Then the National Registration Authority of Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals (NRA) changed the rules, amending its use near water and banning its use by councils, industry and private individuals, but exempting forestry and agriculture. By now Ciba Geigy Australia was copping flack from the Switzerland head office, and requested that some of the bosses come out to Tasmania.

In the end the NRA began a review of the health, environment and trade implications of the herbicide (Atrazine residues have become a convenient US trade barrier). In Tasmania a task force has been sent to monitor and test for all agricultural chemicals on monthly basis. Forestry Tasmania is spending $200,000 on investigating alternatives to chemical use in plantations. There is a moratorium on Atrazine and Simazine by FT until 1997.

There has been a heightening of awareness across Tasmania regarding agricultural chemicals, particularly as they relate to water quality, and councils are looking at using super-heated steam weed control methods in urban areas. The fight against chemical use in our forests and farms and around waterways is not over – the cruel use of 1080 wildlife poison kills up to 400,000 wallabies annually on farms and in plantations – but a battle has been won for a while. Atrazine is now a dirty word.

Atrazine Pesticide Contamination of Tasmania’s Waterways (November 1994?)

Atrazine, a highly residual herbicide, is routinely used to suppress weed competition during plantation establishment. Atrazine is mutagenic and classed as a type 2B carcinogen by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It is the most widely used herbicide in the world and is coming under increasing scrutiny world-wide as a ubiquitous polluter of waterways.


Atrazine has been used for forestry weed control for 26 years. Twenty one spray-sites in the north-east were studied by J.L.Barton and Dr P.E. Davies (1990-91) and showed consistent and persistent contamination of streams, at concentrations as high as 2,000 times the level recommended for potable water.

In May 1993, despite repeated pleas and public protest from the local residents, the Forestry Commission arrested the protesters and sprayed a cocktail of Atrazine and Roundup in the Lorinna water-catchment. When the rains came in July, the domestic water-supply was found to be contaminated at levels many times the World Health Organisation standard. Nearly a year and a half later, atrazine is still detectable at unacceptable levels in the Lorinna water-supply.

The Forestry Commission called for public submissions to find alternative methods of weed control. Following this process, it was publicly declared (11th Aug, ’93) that cost-effective alternative methods existed and that the commission would not contaminate waterways after March 1994.

In June 1994, without consultation with the local residents, the Forestry Commission sprayed atrazine in the water-catchment at Derby. Consequently, the water for the entire town has become contaminated and residents have been obliged to find alternative supplies at their own expense.