- These two shocking articles appeared in the Sydney Morning
Herald on 7 May. There will be more in this series tomorrow. Thanks to
Rex Warren of the Australian Chemical Trauma Alliance for sending them
to us. - Jane
- The Great Red Mud Experiment That Went Radioactive
- By Gerard Ryle
- Quentin Treasure was a member of a local land-care group
when he was approached to take part in an unusual experiment by the West
Australian Agricultural Department.
- The department wanted to spread a reddish substance over
his farmland to see if it would stop unwanted phosphorus from entering
- The bonus, Mr Treasure was assured, was not just environmental.
He could look forward to vastly increased crop yields using a soil-improving
agent that would cost him just 50¢ a tonne.
- But this was no ordinary product. It was industrial waste.
- The trucks dumping tonne after tonne of the ochre-like
material were coming straight from settling ponds at the nearby Alcoa aluminium
refinery, which was co-funding the project.
- "We never talked a lot about whether it was safe
or not," Mr Treasure said. "We were just told it was dirt from
the hills that came from Alcoa. And being a little bit naive at the time,
that is all we assumed it was."
- The experiment, now being used to justify an extraordinary
proposal for large-scale use of industrial waste on West Australian farms,
remains a bitter memory for a small group of farmers that originally took
- What Mr Treasure did not fully understand when he agreed
to the proposal was that, apart from having fertilising potential, the
red mud was also laced with dangerous materials.
- Sprinkled over each hectare were up to 30 kilograms of
radioactive thorium, six kilograms of chromium, more than two kilograms
of barium and up to one kilogram of uranium.
- On top of that there were 24 kilograms of fluoride, more
than half a kilogram each of the toxic heavy metals arsenic, copper, zinc,
and cobalt, as well as smaller amounts of lead, cadmium and beryllium.
- And this was at the lowest application rate of 20 tonnes
- In one instance - when the red mud was applied at 200
tonnes a hectare - the doses could be multiplied ten-fold, according to
a West Australian Environmental Protection Authority document.
- Between 1991 and 1994 more than 7,600 tonnes of Alcoa
red mud was poured directly onto Mr Treasure's farmland at Yarloop, about
an hour's drive south of Perth. About 23,000 more tonnes were poured onto
the lands of 12 neighbouring farmers.
- "The thing that started to alert us that something
might be wrong was that we started to get sick animals," Mr Treasure
said. "We started getting very unusual sicknesses in the cows and
some of them began to die."
- "But it seemed to us that all the department was
worried about was reducing the phosphorous running off into the estuary.
- "There was nothing in their protocol to go and check
animals. And at the end of the day we are producing animals for people
to eat. They had already decided the stuff was safe and that they didn't
need to do that."
- Concern turned to alarm when the farmers were given heavy
metal measurements of water running off their lands. They showed elevated
levels of toxic mercury, selenium, copper and lead.
- "I rang the department up to question the figures
and they sent me a fax saying that someone had probably thrown a [car]
battery in the water and that is why there were excess levels in the water,"
Mr Treasure said. "So my hackles began to rise. I said, 'Don't take
us for fools'."
- Graeme Moore, who also took part in the experiment, said
the department then tried to claim that the high readings were a result
of run-off from a quiet country road,
- "They said, 'Oh you are only dumb farmers, you don't
know what that means'. "But we said, 'It is there in black and white
that these levels exceed what is supposed to be going down there'. That
is when we started to get angry about the whole thing."
- Meanwhile, the department was hailing the experiment
as a success. It is a view it still vehemently holds. Early indications
showed that the primary purpose of the trial - to try to prevent algae
blooms in the Peel-Harvey estuary by reducing phosphorous run-off - appeared
to be working.
- And Alcoa was happy.
- Storing the material was costing a lot of money. It had
been seeking uses for it since the early 1980s and was more than happy
to see it being given away.
- From the beginning both the department and Alcoa acknowledged
the potential pollutants in the waste.
- But each maintained - and still maintains - that the
increased levels of heavy metals would remain tightly bound up in the soil
and that the radioactive materials would barely be noticed.
- Alcoa said there was "more zinc in oysters, more
selenium in brazil nuts, more fluoride in toothpaste, more mercury in shark,
more lead in typical soil and more cadmium in fertiliser" than in
the red mud.
- The department maintained that a number of the high heavy
metal readings taken from the water run-off could be explained by other
factors. "I mean bin Laden is not going to go stealing this stuff
to make atomic bombs out of it," said an Agriculture Department research
officer, Rob Summers.
- "That is what soils are made of - things like fluoride,
aluminium, iron and manganese. All those materials are of course extremely
toxic but when they are built into the matrix of a soil they are very very
hard to get out."
- The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) also went
along with the experiment even though it had acknowledged as early as November
1993 that small amounts of highly poisonous arsenic, fluoride and aluminium
were leaching from the soil.
- "Bauxite residue [red mud] ... contains traces of
some elements which if mobilised could pose environmental risks,"
one EPA report said. "There are a number of issues associated with
this proposal which need to be addressed or considered by other agencies.
These issues include health issues such as the accumulation of heavy metals/radioactivity
- By 1995 the Agriculture Department was struggling to
explain how samples of drain water showed concentrations of aluminium,
copper, lead, mercury and selenium above the levels recommended for marine
and fresh water. In August 1995 and in September 1996 it acknowledged that
arsenic levels in waterways were being exceeded.
- Although five years had passed since the material was
first applied, large plumes of red dust were still hanging over the farmers'
fields. This was not supposed to happen.
- Pressed by the farmers, the department finally agreed
in late 1996 to undertake a limited test on the health of some of the animals.
- "You should have seen the land with 20 tonnes to
the hectare," Mr Treasure said. "The poor old animals - if they
wanted to eat grass they had to physically eat red mud. They had no choice.
Because we knew there was heavy metals in it we wanted to know if it was
going into their system. Being farmers, we didn't want to contaminate our
- Although the department's investigation found "no
obvious health problems", it did find high chromium, fluoride and
cadmium levels in some cattle. The high chromium levels were linked to
the dust and this prompted fears for the farmers' health.
- "Our animals were walking through it and they were
covered in the stuff," Mr Treasure said. "And we were doing the
same. One day they asked me to drive my cattle up through the paddocks
wearing a dust monitor. The monitor clogged up."
- It took the department another year to repeat the dust
tests, using independent experts. Again they concluded there was no threat,
but the farmers were unconvinced.
- "At the end of the day we are not qualified to say
whether the red mud is injurious to our health or benign ... but we don't
believe they do either," said Mr Moore. "I hope it is safe as
hell and I hope it does the job they say it does. But I am still sitting
on the fence because I am not happy."
- Despite the fact that many of the original farmers raised
concerns - including that they were not getting the promised higher crop
yields - the department pressed ahead with the project.
- Red mud was spread over 22 more properties and a fertiliser
company was enlisted to help mix the mud with a commercial fertiliser to
try to produce a slow-release phosphorus product.
- In 1999 the department applied to the EPA to spread 360,000
tonnes of red mud on farmlands across the entire Swan coastal plain.
- Then came an unexpected twist.
- Alcoa refused to release any more mud unless it got indemnity
from any environmental damage. It said this was simply to avoid the risk
of any "irresponsible or inappropriate" use of the product. The
department backed the request on the ground that it was not a commercial
- "It costs us money to make the material available
but we do that because we have been convinced by the science," said
an Alcoa spokesman, Brian Doy. "We think that due diligence has been
done to make sure this is a safe product to use."
- Certainly when the then state Liberal government granted
Alcoa the indemnity in September 1999 the move was unprecedented.
- It cleared the way for hundreds of thousands of tonnes
of red mud to be made available to farmers, this time at $14 a tonne.
- But Mr Treasure and his neighbours have their own theories
about why Alcoa sought an indemnity. He points out, with some justification,
that many of the independent studies used to rationalise the experiment
were paid for by Alcoa.
- Mr Summers dismisses the implications. "You might
actually find that the people who work for Alcoa in Western Australia do
consider that there are some environmental problems that they would actually
love to help with."
- Loophole in the law that allows toxins on the farm By
Gerard Ryle May 7 2002
- When the Queensland Government introduced new rules to
track industrial waste there was one notable loophole.
- If waste was being transported "to a farm for use
as a soil conditioner or fertiliser" it was exempted from state regulations.
- The Queensland laws, which mainly benefit the $1.3 billion
sugar industry, best illustrate the strange contradictions that apply to
waste when it suddenly becomes an agricultural product.
- Pollution expert Professor Ian Rae, from Melbourne University,
says firms who dispose of their waste in agriculture can also avoid reporting
it to the national pollution database.
- The database, the National Pollutant Inventory, was set
up three years ago by state and federal governments and is supposed to
be a comprehensive picture of 92 separate toxins emitted by industry.
- But, it seems that if a waste suddenly becomes a product,
there is no need to report it.
- Professor Rae, who conducted a recent review of the database,
says: "If waste was being diverted into agriculture it probably wouldn't
be considered a waste, that's right.
- "We flirted with the idea initially of putting agricultural
chemicals on the list - things used in pesticide and fertilisers - and
in the end we were more or less directed not to include it because another
approach was going to be taken."
- Many of the substances recorded by the NPI include compounds
found in some industrial wastes being recycled into agriculture. They include
arsenic, mercury, manganese, chromium, nickel, sulfuric acid and flouride.
- In Queensland, sugar mills emit a variety of wastes in
their production processes, such as boiler ash from the combustion process,
and dunder, the waste residue from the distillation process.
- Both are classed as regulated waste under the Queensland
EPA's stated objective of following the path of potential environmental
hazards from "cradle to grave".
- But if a company decides to recycle them back into the
cane fields, they are no longer considered regulated waste. The loophole
saves companies the higher disposal costs and farmers are happy because
they are getting a cheap fertiliser.
- The rules allow a variety of industrial wastes to be
used in the Queensland sugar industry.
- Suzanne Berthelsen from the CSIRO, which has been testing
a variety of products for the Cane Growers Association, says: "The
mill ash has shown very good results, but it has to be used close to the
mill because you have to put it on at a great tonnage."
- Other products being tested include waste plasterboard
and a calcium-silicate industrial slag imported from the United States.
- "We wouldn't use any of the product commercially
or on a larger scale without first checking them thoroughly in the laboratory
for possible negatives," Ms Berthelsen says. "And that has been
a reason why we have rejected some wastes without ever trying them.
- "Some of your fly ash from your coal mines [by-products
from coal burning power stations] would have high levels of elements that
you wouldn't want added."
- The principal scientist at the Bureau of Sugar Experiment
Stations, Dr Graham Kingston, says the bureau was also experimenting with
wastes from the steel industry and cement making.
- He said some of the waste show "minor evidence"
of potentially dangerous heavy metals, but none had been declared hazardous
by the Queensland EPA.
- Fertiliser Companies Now Police Themselves
- By Gerard Ryle
- Australian consumers have no way of knowing what is in
the fertiliser they are spreading over their farms and gardens.
- In late 1998 NSW followed Victoria, becoming one of the
last states to abolish the registration of products.
- Under laws that had applied since the 1930s companies
wanting to sell a product used to have to pay a fee to have it registered.
They also had to provide detailed information about its content.
- But after the big fertiliser companies complained about
the cost, the industry became almost completely self-regulated.
- Companies selling fertilisers are meant to abide by state
labelling codes. However, a loophole allows manufacturers to produce a
fertiliser in one state, under one set of laws, and then to sell it in
- Angela Thomas, the technical manager for Yates, said
not all companies put heavy-metal warnings on their packs even if, technically,
- She said there was little testing of products by state
agricultural departments and no recent prosecutions for incorrect labelling.
- "There was actually quite a strict way of registering
fertilisers in each individual state but now a lot of the requirements
for registrations have been rolled back," she said. "You just
need to basically conform to the regulations. You don't have to submit
an application to actually register a fertiliser."
- Denis Butler, from the Chemical Residue Laboratory of
NSW Agriculture, confirmed there was no testing regime in NSW.
- He said that when the Fertiliser Act was revised in 1998
- it became law the following year - it was determined that "industry
regulation would take over from government regulation in respect to fertiliser
content and marketing".
- In other words the companies would police themselves.
- The Herald found a similar story when it contacted the
chemical residue branches of other states. Only Victoria undertakes some
form of testing, and then only once every two years.
- "We all kind of looked over each other's shoulders
and saw the way the wind was drifting," said Peter Rutherford, chemical
co-ordinator for the West Australian Department of Agriculture.
- "We saw ... our registration system was nothing
more than a duplication of consumer protection provided by the Fair Trading
Ministry, so we just said, 'Why impose that?' So we took it off."
- Geoff Cowles, a senior registration officer with the
department of primary industries in Queensland, said the rules were now
similar to the Commonwealth tax system.
- "The onus rests with the seller to get it right,
so any product that is on the market in Queensland is assumed by this department
to be complying with all respects of the legislation," he said.
- "Our view is that provided the product hasn't exceeded
the maximum permitted concentration [of heavy metals], the product should
be reasonably safe to be on the market."
- Asked how the department knew the levels were not exceeded,
he said: "Well you don't because ... a product that is on the market
is assumed by our department to be complying in every respect with the
- "The only way you could find out would be if you
were to investigate every batch of fertiliser that is on the market. We
don't have the resources to do that.
- "... One of the difficulties we have in the no-registration
process is that we are really not in a good position to know ... what is
on the market."
- Forwarded by Jane Jones, National Pure Water Association,