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Something In The Water Part 1 - Transcript

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They banded together to investigate mysterious water quality issues in one of the most beautiful areas of Tasmania.
Faced with what they saw as government indifference, local doctor Alison Bleaney and marine ecologist Dr. Marcus Scammell spent tens of thousands of their own money.
What they eventually found was the very opposite of what they expected.
CAROLINE JONES, PRESENTER: Hello, I'm Caroline Jones. Tonight's program is about an unlikely alliance between a GP, a group of oyster farmers and a Sydney scientist. They banded together to investigate mysterious water quality issues in one of the most beautiful areas of Tasmania. The Georges River flows into Georges Bay at St Helens in north-eastern Tasmania. It's right next door to the internationally famous Bay of Fires. Faced with what they saw as government indifference Dr Alison Bleaney, GP and marine ecologist Dr Marcus Scammell began their own investigation. Along the way they forked out tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to pay for complex laboratory tests. What they eventually found turned out to be the opposite of what they expected. But as tonight's program reveals it's now being suggested they may have stumbled upon a disturbing new phenomenon of great significance. This is their story.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: I love living here. The sky is always wonderful. The sea is always wonderful. Every hour is a different picture. It’s the Bay of Fires. Bay of Fires was voted by Lonely Planet as the best beach in the world and I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that. I feel very honoured to be allowed to live here. But the other side of the coin is that this is really quite a polluted island in many ways. It’s a fine line whether you damage the reputation of Tasmania itself; whether you damage the reputation for people like real estate agencies; for people whose tourism ventures here. I wouldn’t like to damage those businesses without due cause. It’s actually so difficult to talk about because it could be seen as being alarmist to absolutely everybody that’s drinking water from these water catchments.
MICHAEL BLEANEY, HUSBAND: She was dismissed. She was rubbished. They made a point of rubbishing her publicly. But there’s a larger issue for her. I mean it's duty care, extends past the medical practice. She sees the Government as failing in their duty of care.
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: And I think it takes and extraordinary person to be able to spend must be close to nine years now pursuing and you know beating your head against a brick wall, trying to convince an apathetic community and a fairly unwilling to cooperate Government that there is a major issue that they’re just pretending doesn’t exist. She’s got a history that most people are completely unaware of. And certainly with this issue Alison has been a dog with a bone and she’s not going to stop until the risks of that toxin are clearly understood and dealt with. She’s doing in Tasmania what she did in the Falklands in 1982. She stepped right out in front of the firing line for what she believes in and she won’t stop 'til she gets what she wants, no matter what the cost to her personally. So I should imagine that the Tasmanian Government is in for a long and hard time from Alison and good luck to her.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: I applied to go the Antarctic as a medico but at that time the British didn’t really want female doctors in the Antarctic. So the next best was to go to the Falkland Islands as a GP anaesthetist and started there in 1977. I met my husband there not long after I arrived. My initial experience going there was absolutely fantastic. I had such a good time. It was wonderful. It was like the best rural practice you could ever imagine.
(On Screen Text: On 2nd April 1982, Argentina invade the Falkland Islands. The British Government despatched the armed forces to reclaim the islands.)
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: The morning after the invasion they called for medical staff to, anybody that could assist down at the hospital. So of course off I went down there to go and help.
MICHAEL BLEANEY, HUSBAND: Alison became the de facto administrator of the hospital. There was an Argentine wing and a British wing.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: So Mike and I and the kids moved into the hospital because of course if they needed me at night time even though we were just down the road it was really quite dangerous to get there. Then we had by the end approximately 100 civilians living in the hospital, people who'd had their houses destroyed.
MICHAEL BLEANEY, HUSBAND: And we were sleeping on the floor. We just all mucked in. And the place was shaking I can tell you with the gunfire.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: And realised just actually just how exceedingly dangerous the situation was. We’d actually kept a small transceiver in the hospital although the Argentines kept raiding us to try and see if we had any communications.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: I heard one of the British talking first in English and then in Spanish basically saying that they were ready to negotiate a surrender; they were ready to take a surrender from the Argentineans and if anyone was listening that they could proceed with that.
MICHAEL BLEANEY, HUSBAND: The British were going to come in and it would have been bloodshed.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: First of all I realised I had to go and find the senior Argentinean commanders.
MICHAEL BLEANEY, HUSBAND: That was a bit worrying because I could see the shells dropping in the water as she ran down the hill.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: So I found the commander, Commander Menendez, and said, you know, the British are calling, they're prepared to negotiate a surrender, you have to do this.
MICHAEL BLEANEY, HUSBAND: Anyway she came back and she said that she’d persuaded them to set up a transmitter and they would listen while she talked.
(Excerpt from archival footage, April 1982):

VOICEOVER: And then quite suddenly the whole position changed. The Argentineans weren’t fighting. They were retreating. Hasty instructions were passed on the radio net. An air strike was cancelled. The advancing troops were told: fire only in self defence.

SOLDIER (coming out of tent): I’ve just heard that the white flag is flying over Stanley. Bloody hell! (Cheering)

(End of excerpt)

MICHAEL BLEANEY, HUSBAND: She didn’t negotiate the surrender, no. She brought them together. She initiated the discussion which led to them agreeing to surrender.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: So it was an amazing experience actually. On the one hand you felt incredibly elated (cries).
MICHAEL BLEANEY, HUSBAND: We survived. We actually survived. And nothing is ever going to bother me again. I can tell you that’s how I feel. That’s it. We survived! And then we came here and never looked back. And I love it. It’s beautiful.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: I’ve been a GP for 30 years now and I came here from the Falkland Islands in 1989. It was my ideal general practice. I loved it - rural Tasmania. There was really not much in the way of diseases here. There wasn’t much in the way of cancer. And then somewhere around about 2000 it dawned on me that really I was seeing an increase in all sorts of diseases that to me was quite unexpected and unexplainable. I kept comparing the diseases and the health issues here to what I'd seen in the Falklands. I really couldn't work out why this was so different. I realised that we had a large increase in cancer sufferers and a lot of people with rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, lupus. We have had a lot of gut cancers, that's oesophageal cancers, gastric cancers, bowel cancers. We've had quite a few cancers of the gall bladder which is not that common. We’ve had quite a few head and neck cancers, often people in their 40s and 50s. It’s not that desperately common.
(On Screen Text: As Alison Bleaney was noticing increasing health problems amongst her patients, the local oyster farmers were also worried. Problems were emerging with the health of their oysters in Georges Bay.)
JIM HARRIS, OYSTER FARMER: The Pacific oyster was brought into Tasmania as a possible industry for returning soldiers. So the farms have probably been here for 40 years. Well the industry was great. It was a great little business. And you know the oysters, we had some of the best growth with oysters here in the bay, which we still do. The market was good. Yeah so it was a really good business.
IAN COATSWORTH, OYSTER FARMER: We started noticing problems in I suppose it would be about 97. But we couldn’t put a handle on anything. But the problem became more serious about 2000. The oysters were terribly slow in growing. They weren’t growing to their true shape.
JIM HARRIS, OYSTER FARMER: We had some oyster deaths and we also saw a pathology with the oysters that pointed to a possible contamination of TBT which is a tributyltin, which is an antifoulant used on boats.
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: The oyster farmers and the Tasmanian Government were so concerned about these anomalies they were observing in oysters in Georges Bay that they invited me down. So I was called in because I was an expert in antifouling paints, tributyltin and oysters. The oysters had clear deformities associated with tributyltin. But they only had one or two nanograms in their tissue which is nowhere near enough to actually cause that deformity. My conclusion in my report for the Government was that there was at least one other source of chemical contamination in that area resulting in these oysters becoming hypersensitive. From 1997 onwards the oyster farmers started noticing significant losses after rainfall. Initially it was 10 per cent loss. Then it started to climb up to 20 per cent loss. It had climbed as high as high as 30 per cent loss in 2003.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: And in 2004 the end of January we had this huge flood and at that time a huge amount of fresh water came down into the bay and they lost 90 per cent of the intertidal oysters. And at the same time there were some other species that were killed such as fish and some eels and frogs and insects and all those things. And the oyster farmers started talking about you know, what was this due to?
(Newspaper headline: "Oyster kill ... Multi-million-dollar losses as farms wiped out")
JIM HARRIS, OYSTER FARMER: The Government came. They took samples of the oysters . They took water samples and they couldn’t pinpoint any particular causal agent that might have killed the oysters but suggested it was probably the amount of fresh water.
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: Which is absurd because oysters live and thrive through floods.
IAN COATSWORTH, OYSTER FARMER: So we knew it wasn’t fresh water. What we deduced was there must have been something in that fresh water.
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: It turned out that five weeks prior to that flood event there had been a helicopter crash carrying pesticides and herbicides in the upper catchment, apparently aerial spraying trees. And this was the first that I’d heard about plantations in that area. When we started to look at the size of the plantations it became apparent that here was a very large source of potential toxic chemical.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: So it seemed a possibility that the pesticides were an issue with the death of the oysters and in fact could be in the water. And it suddenly dawned on me that the water that was coming down into the bay was our drinking water for St Helens. And in fact that water is sold onto other small communities around the area that need their water tanks filled up. So I started thinking about the water issues and whether the problems with the water could in fact be related to some of the ill health that I was seeing here in this area.
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: Alison rang me and said to me, "I’m a doctor in the St Helens area and I’ve been observing some very strange things in my patients. Do you think it’s possible that the mortality that you’re observing in oysters and the problem in my patients might all be coming from the same source, which is the water?"
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: The timing in terms of when the oysters fell over and her patients were starting to show these unusual symptoms was all starting to fit together.
(On Screen Text: As Dr Bleaney and the oyster farmers first began to observe problems in St Helens, a devastating wildlife disease emerged. The Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease was first detected in that same north eastern corner of Tasmania.
DR DAVID OBENDORF, WILDLIFE VET PATHOLOGIST: It came out of nowhere back in the mid 90s. It was in 1996 that a Dutch photographer was working at Mount William National Park filming devils just north of St Helens that he recognised that a number of devils in that population had these raw, gaping, large swellings on their face, ulcerated, bleeding. And he recognised that this was different. He also recognised there weren’t as many devils in the population.
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: The oyster farmers, myself and Alison prepared up a report which looked at the time lines of mortality of oysters, the concurrent problems associated with Alison’s patients and also looked at the time lines associated with the Tasmanian Devil.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: We released a joint paper which has been called the Scammell Report which basically hypothesised that perhaps the flood caused some adverse events to the oysters because of the pesticides it was carrying, or something that it was carrying such as pesticides. And this was perhaps causing an impact on human health as well because we're after all drinking the same water that goes into the bay.
(Excerpt from ABC News, 2004)

CATHERINE AKERS, REPORTER: The report commissioned by St Helens oyster growers calls for an immediate ban on aerial spraying of plantations. Marine ecologist Marcus Scammell found strong links between a threefold increase in timber plantations and oyster kills after heavy rain.

PAUL LENNON, PREMIER: We take the matter very seriously. We're taking the assertions and allegations made in the report very seriously.

CATHERINE AKERS: Just minutes later his health minister and deputy was suggesting it was heavy rainfall that caused the oyster kill.

DAVID LLEWELLYN, HEALTH MINISTER: People have got to understand that there was a very major natural-ish thing that occurred.

(End of excerpt)

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: When you see large numbers of dead animals occurring all of a sudden, it is screamingly obvious that you have something wrong. That is not a natural event. Animals don’t lie. Ninety per cent of those oysters dropped dead after one rainfall event. They don’t lie. The Tasmanian devils aren’t lying when they’re sitting up and saying we’re sick. They really are sick. In Alison’s population of humans there’s a variety, a much bigger variety of illness than you would normally observe, that you would normally expect. And it’s not that there’s one particular type of cancer that’s sky rocketed; it’s that she’s got so many unusual cancers. They all started to emerge in that north-east corner at about the same time. And it was around about that time that the plantation industry was really starting to take off.
REPORTER ,ABC News, 2004: The Government asked public health expert Professor Paolo Ricci to review the integrity of the Scammell Report. He has criticised it as an opinionated manifesto which fails to provide detail.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: It was rubbished in many ways by the Australian Medical Association and the Department of Health, saying that our methodology didn’t support the findings that we found an increase in cancer rates in this area, especially gut cancers.
(Newspaper headline: "Cancer report rejected by AMA")
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: But they didn’t actually investigate whether the increase in ill health that I was seeing was real or not real and they basically just dismissed the whole thing out of hand.
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: Instead of offering to actually investigate the problem what the Government did was engaged a number of experts to say that our science was no good. Well of course there was no science in there. All we had was a series of observations and a request for some science.
DR DAVID OBENDORF, WILDLIFE VET PATHOLOGIST: It seemed to be a very heavy handed way of really putting down somebody who was an expert in a field of endeavour, who was recognised you know to be able to speak on this matter.
(Newspaper headlines: "Oyster report 'hosed down'"; "Oyster death study rejected by review")
DR DAVID OBENDORF, WILDLIFE VET PATHOLOGIST: And he was comparing it with his experience in other parts of Australia. You know you’d have to say, well how many times has a fresh water pulse flood event killed oysters in other parts of the world? And he made some statements about devil facial tumour as well. And it’s not saying there’s a relationship necessarily with other factors but it’s saying you’ve got to put all the cards on the table to work out what is going on here. It’s very much empirical deductive science that begins the dialogue in saying: Is there a relationship here between an event, a sudden event, mass mortality and, and something that may well have affected that ecology or that environment to contaminate it?
DR PHIL PULLINGER, GP AND DIRECTOR OF ENVIRONMENT TASMANIA: What should have happened is the regulatory system should have been able to take over and say, right, we’ve got some concerns that have been raised here. Let’s get onto it. Let's fix it up. Let's investigate it. Let's take remedial action and make some policy changes if that's what's needed. That's how the system should have reacted. And the appropriate response from the health authorities should have been: We've got a GP who's worked here for many yearS, they're raising some serious concerns. We really should take this seriously. But instead they basically tried to shoot her down, attack her, pull her arguments apart and then put up a brick wall.
DR DAVID OBENDORF, WILDLIFE VET PATHOLOGIST: There is profound denial about what she’s saying. It’s almost like you don’t want to visit the concentration camps. You don’t want to see what’s happening in the forests. You don’t want to see the consequences of the use of chemicals over a landscape. And it’s usually the voiceless, the wildlife that are your earliest indicators that something is going wrong. There’s something rotten in the state of Tasmania.
DR PHIL PULLINGER, GP AND DIRECTOR OF ENVIRONMENT TASMANIA: I saw her publicly contradicted by the Director of Public Health, contradicted by the AMA. I heard a story about her being dressed down by the minister in a public meeting. And from my point of view what she was doing was what she absolutely should be doing which was putting public health and the public interest at the forefront of her responsibility.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: So the fact that they bounced us so hard, so dramatically, I think made us more determined that we would go and have a look and see if we could find anything out for ourselves. So we decided just to pay for it ourselves and go and have a look to see what pesticides were coming down in the catchment.
JIM HARRIS, OYSTER FARMER: Up until this point in time there’s been no positive results from pesticide testing of our oysters or any oysters in the state. But the pesticides that are used in particular in the plantation industry are toxic to the marine environment.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: The Public Health Act does say that water, drinking water is supposed to be safe, clean and non-toxic. So we thought okay, we’ll start with toxic. Is it toxic or not?
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: I said the first thing we need to do though is we need to look at the water during the period when it’s not toxic. So we organised for dry weather water to be sampled.
IAN COATSWORTH, OYSTER FARMER: Marcus recommended that we build some skimmer boxes to concentrate up the surface water. And we put the skimmer boxes in and what we found was that they collected a big amount of foam.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: So this was our first monitoring event, at a time when we did not expect to be any problem at all with water quality. No spraying, no floods, no rain events. The river was running on ground water. Everything seemed very clean, very green, very happy.
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: That was brought to Sydney, was put through a NATA accredited laboratory here. Now a toxicity test is a very simple procedure. You take a sample of water. You place a freshwater animal in it called a water flea, look at it for 48 hours. I f the animal dies there is something wrong with that water. If the animal lives the water is fine. And they rang me up and said, “Your water is toxic”. And I said, “No it can’t be, it's dry weather”. And he said, “Get me another sample.” So we got him another sample and sure enough the water was toxic. It’s one thing to be poisonous after rainfall but to be poisonous during dry weather means it’s poisonous all the time. And so we were both now you know more than concerned we were now alarmed.
(On Screen Text: next week)
STEVE KONS, TASMANIAN ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: People who make such accusations and quackery in my view should certainly hold back.
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: The Tasmanian Government’s conclusion was that it was naturally occurring toxins and therefore it’s okay.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: We decided that we would carry on and try and find out what this toxin was.
DR CHRISTIAN KHALIL, ENVIRONMENTAL TOXICOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF NSW): Whatever is in the water is killing all the cell population in my tests.
DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: Everything that we knew could cause toxicity we had eliminated.
DR CHRIS HICKEY, ECO-TOXICOLOGIST, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF WATER AND ATMOSPHERIC RESEARCH, NZ: It told us we were looking for something different, something unusual. I think they really may have stumbled on something quite new.
DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP: I think the war in the Falklands was much easier to deal with. This battle I find very difficult to know who the good guys are.
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