1995 -1997: Gunnedah Cotton. Various Health Problems

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Minister In A Spin Over Cotton Pesticide War

Sydney Morning Herald

Friday May 9, 1997

By MURRAY HOGARTH Environment Writer

Conflict over a chemical crisis among Gunnedah farmers has forced the State Government to bring forward its overhaul of the aging and maligned pesticides law.

The battle pits the small Gunnedah Environment Group (GEG) against Australia’s $1 billion-a-year cotton industry, which has become a major force in the region’s economy over the past five years.

The Minister for the Environment, Ms Allan, was accused yesterday of bowing to cotton might after a backflip on her historic intervention this week to enforce a strict new regime on Gunnedah’s aerial spraying industry.

Her moves pre-empt next week’s release of a report of an investigation by the Total Environment Centre entitled “Gunnedah – A community in crisis over pesticides”. It will brand the area as a pesticide “hot spot” and includes case histories of people who claim spray drift from cotton crops is destroying their health and livelihoods.

“You can’t control the involuntary exposure to chemicals,” said a beef and grain producer, Mr Len Sanders. “It is this low-dose involuntary exposure that is gradually strangling life out of both the human and natural environments.”

But the executive director of Cotton Australia, Mr Gary Punch, has attacked the GEG members as “tabloid environmentalists” and called for the punishment of vexatious or frivolous complainants.

The Herald has found that the Gunnedah crisis includes:* Gunnedah lawyers leading class actions over the chemicals Helix – now voluntarily banned after an export meat contamination disaster – and Endosulfan, which is heavily used by cotton growers;

* Gunnedah Council recently closing its aerial spraying facility. More than two decades of activities led to high-level chemical contamination that could cost $1 million to clean up;* The cotton industry being blamed for everything from a falling water table to major dieback of trees and widespread health complaints, although the industry denies there is any scientific support for such claims;* A chemist, Mr Peter Dennis, saying he had observed a significant but unquantified increase in demand for medications for allergies and respiratory complaints and calling for an expert survey of Gunnedah health practitioners.

On Tuesday, Ms Allan promised to use an obscure provision in the Pesticides Act to take control of aerial spraying, including imposing a night ban. The NSW Farmers’ Association attacked her as a “Big Brother” using “jackboot tactics”.

Days later, Ms Allan changed tack after negotiations with Mr Punch, a former Federal Labor MP. She agreed to give the spraying industry a last chance to regulate itself because she feared its non co-operation could jeopardise her facilitation process.

Yesterday, Ms Allan released a new discussion paper on proposed changes to the Pesticides Act, two months early, saying it gave Gunnedah people options to resolve the conflict. The proposals include raising fines for pesticide offences from $40,000 to $125,000 and making negligence as well as wilful acts punishable. The GEG campaign, using the slogan “Gunna Die at Gunnedah”, wants aerial spraying banned and is led by farmers Ms Margaret Mercer and Ms Michelle Kelly.

Ms Mercer said the split was “between those who use a little bit of chemicals and those who use a lot”.

Cotton Farmers Hit Back In Aerial Spraying Battle

Sydney Morning Herald

Monday June 16, 1997

By ANTHONY HOY Rural Editor

The State and Federal Governments are supporting calls for an independent scientific health study into the impact of aerial pesticide spraying on community health in an attempt to resolve a battle between the farm sector and residents, centred on the township of Gunnedah.

Some of the Upper Namoi’s 160 farmer families claim they have received death threats and constant telephone and street harassment, and that their children have developed complexes from discrimination and vilification by peers and adults in schools and at sport.

They say that medical conditions are being attributed to the spraying, without scientific foundation.

The residents are being supported by the environmental movement, which has taken up the local cause to develop the aerial cotton chemical spraying into a State-wide issue.

This week the farming families hit back by launching a campaign against what they say is a climate of social prejudice and regulatory discrimination.

“It’s a curious case of a community biting the hand that feeds it,” sharefarmer Mr Peter Greentree said.

“Agricultural production in the Upper Namoi Valley, of which Gunnedah is the focal point, is worth $675 million annually to the region, according to Gunnedah Shire Council.”

The cotton farmers also grow barley, wheat, sorghum, sunflowers and corn, and 70 per cent of them raise cattle.

“As mixed farmers, we are no longer prepared to be shackled with the spectre of the State’s chemical human health problems, unfairly singled out from other intensive agricultural centres and victimised without any scientific foundation to the allegations levelled against us,” said Mr Greentree.

Hope of an end to these deep divisions in the community came this week when a spokesman for the Minister for the Environment, Ms Allan, confirmed the State Government was “happy to discuss dollar-for-dollar funding” for the health study with the Federal Government.

And a spokesman for the Primary Industries Minister and deputy leader of the National Party, Mr Anderson, whose electorate includes Gunnedah, confirmed that Mr Anderson supported moves for an independent health study.

The farm families complain that 24 separate pieces of legislation and regulation are disrupting normal cropping programs, affecting yields and slashing profits.

Cotton Australia’s executive director, Mr Gary Punch, said: “We are committed to the campaign for an independent study based on objective tests and sound methodologies as the only means of resolving the conflict over aerial application of pesticides.

“The environmental lobby – the Total Environment Centre and the Gunnedah Environment Group – has made huge milage out of the questionable findings of a 1966 preliminary report into the health impact of pesticides, which showed that 13 people had symptoms that may have been linked to either aerial application, pollens and other factors.”