The Environment Protection Authority may take legal action is it finds the law has been breached in an incident that left 500 square kilometers of central Victoria sprayed with farm chemical including most of the city of Ballarat.
The spraying of the herbicide Hexazinone has raised health and environmental concerns among Ballarat residents and damaged elm trees in Ballarat’s Avenue of Honour. A community health hotline was set up in late February, when the chemical’s presence was first detected.
Many trees have suffered from spotted leaves, and hundreds of elm trees have dropped their leaves early. But local health officers have advised that no trace of the chemical had been found in the city’s water supply and that homegrown fruit and vegetables were safe to eat.
The EPA is investigating the incident, which probably occurred late last year. The area affected runs south of Ballarat as far as Buninyong, and north to Clunes. There has been speculation that the chemical dump was caused by a drift from aerial spraying of pine forests.
Hexazinone is used to retard the growth of young eucalypts in pine plantations. An EPA spokesman said there was no confirmed link between aerial spraying and the chemical’s appearance, but that any breaches of the Environment Protection Act could lead to court action.
About 50 people have rung a hot line set up by the Department of Health and Community Services. The EPA has also set up a hot line for people to give information about the spraying.
The Chief Medical Officer, Dr Graham Rouch, said Ballarat’s residents were not at risk from hexazinone. Herbicides worked on plant systems but were not toxic to humans, he said. But Dr Rouch said hexazinone could irritate the eyes.
No traces of the chemical had been found in Ballarat’s water, he said. “We’re looking at very tiny drops in a diluted form (over Ballarat),” he said.
The City of Ballarat’s director of gardens and parks, Mr Phil Clingin, said yellow spots appeared on leaves of trees in the Avenue of Honour last November. Mr Clingin said about 25 per cent of the avenue’s 4000 trees had been affected, with many dropping all their leaves. He said it was too early to say whether the elms would recover.
The ALP candidate for Ballarat Province, Mrs Catherine Laffey, said there was widespread concern about the spraying, although it was important that people were not unduly alarmed. Mrs Laffey said an independent inquiry should be held. Ballarat Community Health Council’s executive officer, Mr Paul Niall, said no one had come in with health problems from the spray.
A spokesman for the Australian Medical Association in Ballarat said doctors had not reported patients being affected. A Ballarat Councillor, Ms Janet Dale, said she believed the incident was being properly investigated but that more stringent controls might be needed once the EPA released its results.