2008 February: Woori Yallock Spray Drift

2008: February – Source The Age: In the midst of Victoria’s water crisis, a neighbourhood dispute over water supplies and the use of pesticides has turned ugly, with allegations of standover tactics and intimidation. A clash between small landowners and two of Australia’s largest strawberry growers over the use of pesticides along Woori Yallock Creek has grown to embroil six government departments, the Shire of Yarra Ranges and the police.

Water from Woori Yallock Creek drains into the Yarra River, which supplies the Sugarloaf Reservoir and Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs. But residents in this picturesque valley in Melbourne’s east claim their drinking water and local creek are being contaminated with pesticides, dust and earthworks run-off from neighbouring strawberry farms.

They say the dust plumes and pesticide drifts are so bad that they cannot leave their windows open at night. They have started buying drinking water and no longer eat home-grown fruit and vegetables. The residents also claim they have felt intimidated by one of Australia’s leading strawberry marketing and distribution companies for raising their concerns about water and air pollution.

“There are plenty of residents, including smaller strawberry growers around here, who are intimidated by these people and are too scared to talk about it,” said local resident Rob Baines. “There has been a lot of intimidation going on around here, perceived and actual.”

Mr Baines is leading a campaign to change the farming practices of Oz Fresh Pty Ltd and a Perth-based managed investment scheme, Rewards Group. Mr Baines’ property sits alongside the Rewards Group land and is across the creek from Oz Fresh. Tensions increased last week when a confrontation between Mr Baines and his neighbour, Rocco Pignataro, led to complaints to police.

“They have been spraying two to three times a week for eight months using turbo sprays that can send the pesticide drifts up to 10 kilometres away, and this is part of the Melbourne water catchment,” Mr Baines said. The owners of Oz Fresh — the leading strawberry supplier to Coles and Safeway supermarkets — dispute the residents’ claims, citing national food safety awards, regular auditing of farming methods and compliance with laws governing water use in Melbourne’s catchment area.

But the Labor MP for Gembrook and a member of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Tammy Lobato, has asked Melbourne Water to conduct tests in Woori Yallock Creek and the EPA to test drinking water tanks for pesticide contamination.

Woori Yallock Creek rises from springs near the base of Mount Donna Buang east of Melbourne and is an important tributary for the Yarra River and the Melbourne water catchment.

Rights to pump from the creek or collect surface run-off in the catchment require a licence from Melbourne Water.

The long-established Oz Fresh farm, recently expanded to cover 97 hectares, has entitlements to pump from the creek and store water for irrigation.

But the Rewards Group, which started to acquire properties in the valley 10 months ago and has contracts and lease arrangements with Oz Fresh, has not been granted a water licence.

Despite this, Rewards’ strawberry and blueberry farm is being promoted to investors as having access to millions of litres of Melbourne’s drinking water from “river diversion licences” and a 200-megalitre storage dam to be constructed within six months.

“What they say on their website is one thing; we do not have an application (for the dam),” said Melbourne Water spokesman Ben Pratt.

“Oz Fresh have a 138-megalitre entitlement that is surface and water allocations (creek pumping), but bans on pumping are current.”

Mr Pratt said Melbourne Water had been working with Oz Fresh and Rewards Group to develop a farm management plan that would include revegetating the banks and public reserves along their shared creek frontage.

He said no new water rights would be approved until Melbourne Water was satisfied the environmental and water management plan had been fulfilled.

“We are closely monitoring the activity of Oz Fresh to ensure they comply,” Mr Pratt said.

But Joe Pignataro, a director of the private, family-run company, said the Woori Yallock property had award-winning farm practices. He denied any suggestion the neighbours were intimidated by his family and said “my door is always open”.

“I have no idea why they would be saying these things,” Mr Pignataro said.

He also denied pesticides were sprayed on his property with booms raised, a practice known to contribute to spray drift. “There is no issue with pesticides,” he said.