2004 October: Snowy River Pine Plantations. Suspected Pesticide: Atrazine.

Toxic chemical poisoning Snowy: farmer

By Rossylyn Beeby Research, Conservation and Science Reporter Wednesday, 6 October 2004.Canberra Times

The Snowy River catchment is likely to have been contaminated by high levels of toxic herbicides used to control weeds on pine plantations, according to a local farmer and Landcare committee chairman.

Addressing ANU Forestry students, Gippsland grazier Robert Belcher said atrazine and pyrethhoids had been used for more than 30 years to control weeds in pine plantations on the southern Monaro.

He said anecdotal evidence from local spraying contractors indicated herbicides were frequently used at high-strength levels that exceeded legally prescribed safety levels.

“Atrazine has contaminated most of the rivers and streams that flow into the Snowy. We have seen massive fish kills and in some cases, everything in the river has died,” he said. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use chemicals but I think you should be starting to get a bit suspicious about how safe they are.”

Studies in the United States and Europe claim the herbicide is linked to prostate cancer, reproductive problems and hormone imbalances. It has been proved to cause sexual abnormalities in frogs and also cited as a likely cause of an overall global decline in frog populations.

Mr Belcher told The Canberra Times urgent public meetings were being organised at Delegate and Bombala to discuss the health impacts of atrazine and other herbicides.

He said the rural settlement of Craigie had experienced a high number of cancer deaths in recent years and locals believed these deaths were linked to atrazine. “Eight people from Craigie have died from cancer in the last five to ten years, and that figure does not include people suffering from prostate or breast cancer.

“We know it is still being used by forestry operators in the area – it has a very distinctive smell,” he said.

Tasmanian farmer David Reid obtained documents under Freedom of Information on the extent of herbicide use in Tasmania’s forestry industry and recently gave copies of relevant documents to Mr Belcher and to the Canberra Times. One scientific report published in 1994 stated atrazine contamination from a single forestry operation persisted in streams at low levels for up to 16 months.

The report, by Tasmania’s Inland Fisheries Commission, also says rainfall causes significant increases in atrazine concentrations in creeks and streams, and concludes that contamination of Tasmania’s streams by herbicides is a “frequent occurrence wherever they are used”.

In August, Delegate residents travelled to Canberra to express concerns to federal politicians over tax relief investment in pine plantations.

The group met senior politicians, Cabinet ministers and one of the Prime Minister’s senior advisers to outline their opposition to the expansion of pine plantations in the region. They claim managed investment schemes are driving an expansion of private forestry plantations, with scant regard for preservation of native grasslands, bushfire management and water catchment protection.

South Melbourne based company Willmot forests manages 16,000ha of pine plantations in the Delegate and Bombala regions. The company could not be contacted last night but has previously stated that it was a major employer and injected $9.9 million directly into the region last year.

Mr Belcher, chair of the Snowy River Landcare committee for the past 14 years, believes forestry herbicide use should be a key political consideration for Eden-Monaro residents in this weekend’s election.

“I don’t know how you can talk about that sort of chemical use and expect to see this planet operating in another thousand years.”