The Tasmanian Water Saga and Plantation Timber

This is a remarkable story and if you saw both episodes of Australian Story Something in the Water  on ABC TV then you don’t need to read this introduction.
For the videos Click here and Here

Alison Bleaney is a general practitioner (and DEA member) in St Helens, NE Tasmania. She was concerned by the number of unusual cancers and other illnesses that were diagnosed in her small community and when in 2004 a large flood of fresh water from the surrounding catchment rushed into the St. Helens bay and there was a large oyster kill, her attention turned to pesticide spraying in the catchment plantations. This was an appropriate question for the spraying practices in forestry had been a concern of many Tasmanians for a considerable time. She had difficulty getting government to investigate the problem and her experiences are detailed in our previous article, Click here  Spraying practices were detailed in a further article, Click here

The story takes an unexpected twist in that water samples taken from the Georges River which supplies St Helens have been shown to be toxic to organisms and human cell lines by independent laboratories of standing. The origin of the toxin is the eucalyptus plantation. Now read on

Eucalyptus nitens
This species forms much of the Tasmanian plantations. Its leaf detritus produces a foam in the river water which contains a high concentration of toxin. The toxin is present in all eucalypt leaves but is in a much higher concentration in plantation eucalypts. There are suggestions that the “genetically enhanced” E. nitens used in the plantations appears to generate more foam and there is anecdotal evidence that contact between oysters and the toxin-bearing foam slows oyster growth. The widespread publicity given to this issue, combined with the convincing evidence from the multiple laboratories has now galvanised the Tasmanian government into action after years of dismissal

Why does the plantation timber contain a high concentration of toxin? According to the GMO database there are no approvals for GM Eucalypts. We therefore have to assume that the imported species has been bred using conventional means for high growth and that this has unanticipated harmful effects, evident at least in the soils and conditions of this part of Tasmania.

Once again this raises the issue of plantations, loss of species and changes in ecology. In Canada run off from plantations has changed the pH of river water and has harmed the salmon industry. In Tasmania there is concern over the use of productive farm land for plantations. A mysterious transmissable facial cancer has arisen in state’s most iconic species, the Tasmanian Devil, and was first observed near the St Helens plantation. Its position at the apex of the food chain generates suspicions of a bio-accumulating toxin being involved, perhaps leading to immunosuppression. The oyster industry has been harmed, and there are claims of unusual illnesses in humans and perhaps other species, such as wombats and platypus. On the other hand the use of plantation timber is considered necessary to reduce the destruction of mature forest and to sustain employment.

David Shearman and Colin Butler