Farm chemical spray drift causing widespread tree deaths, claims community group
Below: A tree said to be affected by spray drift in Gulgong, NSW.(Supplied)
Farmers, scientists and other community members across NSW have criticised the state’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) for ignoring reports of damage to crops and vegetation from agricultural chemicals drifting on the wind.
Spray drift is the spread of agricultural chemicals like pesticides and herbicides from farms to neighbouring areas through the air.
It’s a widely recognised phenomenon but this season has been described as one of the worst because unprecedented flooding, humidity and atmospheric inversion have all contributed to more incidents.
Members of Community Overspray Groups (COGs) met in Sydney recently to highlight their concerns.
They say the NSW EPA has not been properly investigating their reports of widespread impacts.
The group’s secretary Beatrice Ludwig said members from across the state have reported the impact on their crops as well as the vegetation on their land and in public areas.
“We have gardens and orchards being defoliated. We have beekeepers, and entire bee hives dying,” Ms Ludwig said.
The group said the EPA was giving them very little attention.
“The response is usually, ‘you go and prove it’,” rather than EPA taking it upon itself to investigate, she said.
“Spray drift is causing devastation and unintended consequences across thousands of hectares of farming and grazing land,” Pennie Scott, Convenor of the Passive Chemical Exposure Taskforce, said.
“They are doing nothing about protecting our environment … they are sitting on their hands, I don’t know whether its indifference, ignorance or just plain negligence, but they are not fulfilling their role,” she said.
A group of scientists chaired by ANU adjunct professor Richard Thackway visited parts of the central west last year and determined that there was enough evidence to warrant investigation into the links between large-scale vegetation stress and agricultural chemicals.
“The group [of scientists] has widely observed symptoms of chemical drift on non-target vegetation over the past few decades and the degradation of vegetation does not appear to be occurring from natural causes,” the statement said.
“The current run of wet seasons has resulted in vegetation recovery in many areas, but this is not evident in areas of intensive agronomic production where chemical use can be intense,” it said.
‘NSW waterways contaminated’
Aside from the possible effects on vegetation, pesticide runoff from agricultural production could also be in the state’s waterways.
Matt Landos is Director of Future Fisheries Veterinary Services and an honorary lecturer at Sydney University.
“What we know from monitoring [in Queensland] is that pretty much all waters that drain from agricultural land in Australia are contaminated with residues of products applied as pesticides,” Dr Landos said.
Dr Landos said while New South Wales did not have an extensive monitoring system like other states, it was “almost certain” the state’s waterways were contaminated given NSW’s volume of pesticide use in agriculture.
“From the fishery point of view, their productivity can be impacted by very low exposures to chemicals, impacting the viability of the food web, and the recruitment of new juveniles into fisheries,” he said.
Bad conditions for drift
The NSW EPA acknowledged the season’s conditions have come together to exacerbate spray drift.
“With the way the weather patterns have been this year, it’s culminated in many farmers needing to spray at the same time,” executive director of regulatory operations at the EPA Carmen Dwyer said.
She said farmers were desperate for their crops to succeed this season after some difficult years due to fires, floods and the mouse plague, and some were possibly spraying in ways they should not.
“We’re seeing allegations of quite broad impact from particular chemicals”
Ms Dwyer encouraged people to report incidents of spray drift as soon as they suspected it.
“If we’re told quickly about an incident we can get vegetation samples and confirm what type of pesticide has been applied, but unfortunately a lot of the time we’re not notified of the incident in a timely way so that restricts our ability to investigate.”
The EPA said it looked into all pollution notifications and reports, and had only received 12 this season.
The Community Overspray Groups worried that growers were now disillusioned with the investigation process, after making reports to the EPA for many years.