It’s estimated that a third of Tasmania’s town water systems don’t meet national standards, says a Radio National Background Briefing Special on Tassie Water.
The people living in five towns in Tasmania’s north-east have been told not to drink the water from their kitchen taps because of high levels of heavy metals, such as lead.
Listen to the full report on Background Briefing, Sunday 31 March at 8am, repeated Tuesday 2 April at 7pm
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DON’T DRINK THE WATER
A third of Tasmania’s town water systems don’t meet national drinking water standards and residents in several towns have to queue at a communal tap. Why has the ‘clean, green’ state got such a problem with contaminated water? Ian Townsend investigates.
In the town of Ringarooma, in Tasmania’s picture-postcard northeast, mother of five Amber Jones makes her daily walk down to the town’s water tank with a five-litre plastic container.
‘It leaks all the way. I get home with about half,’ she says.
The town of 370 people has been told not to drink the town water supply because it’s contaminated with lead, so they have to make do with one tap at a communal tank behind the fire station.
‘When there’s five drinking it, and then brushing your teeth, and you can imagine like the amount of veggies you have to boil for tea and stuff, we sort of go through a fair bit of water,’ Ms Jones says.
Ringarooma’s one of five towns in Tasmania’s northeast where the residents have been given tanks and told not to drink the water because of heavy metals.
‘You’ve got to be constantly saying to the kids, “Don’t drink the water! Don’t drink the water!”‘ says Ms Jones. ‘If they’re in the bath and they’re playing tea parties or something, and they are trying to drink it, you’re like: “Don’t drink the water!” Yeah, it’s pretty frustrating.’
Ben Lomond Water manages the town water schemes in Tasmania’s northeast. Acting CEO Andrew Beswick says a number of small town water supplies in the region have heavy metal issues, including Whitemark on Flinders Island, Pioneer and Ringarooma in the northeast, and Avoca in the Fingal Valley.
‘They’re generally lead issues… lead concentrations in the water above Australian Drinking Water Guideline standards,’ Mr Beswick says. ‘Avoca also has a high cadmium level… We’re talking about in the order of two to four times the Australian Drinking Water Guideline standards.’
Listen to the full investigation on Background Briefing, Sunday 31 March at 8am, Tuesday 2 April at 2pm.
In fact, a third of Tasmania’s town water schemes do not meet Australian Drinking Water Guideline standards. Last year, nine towns recorded high levels of chemicals or metals. Twenty-two towns are on permanent Boil Water Alert. Another 13 towns were told to temporarily boil their water last year, because of high levels of bacteria.
‘Even before the heavy metal issue the risk was very even because of the number of these supplies [that] are not microbiologically sound, in that they have E. coli present so you have to remember to boil the water,’ Mr Beswick says.‘[I]t’s not the standard of supply I think people would expect or deserve.’
Rob White, a Professor of Criminology at the University of Tasmania, has been studying the state’s contaminated towns.
‘We’re supposed to be living in a clean, green, pristine state, and what we’re doing is boiling our water? Going to a communal water tank? Surely we’ve got to think down the track that there’s got to be something wrong systemically that needs to be addressed.’
Professor White says a lot of the metal contamination is coming from old mines.
‘We have legacy waste. We have heavily, heavily polluted waters in some of our rivers and nothing substantial really is being done in some of these areas,’ he says.
‘We’re now giving the go-ahead to new projects without addressing the old ones, and so why should we trust that the new potential mining projects or forestry projects, which are already proven to contaminate the environment, why should we trust that those aren’t going to have their own legacy impacts?’
The most serious legacy for drinking water in Tasmania appears to be lead, a neurotoxin that’s been linked to learning difficulties and behavioural problems in children.
There’s been increasing concern about the effect tiny amounts of lead has on the brains of young children, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now say there is no safe level of lead in children.
In the town of Ringarooma, residents say they weren’t told about the lead in the bore water until three months after it appeared at high levels. The bore water had been turned off six weeks after high lead levels were found in late-August, but at the time no one was told why.
The residents are now worried that the lead might have been in the town bore on and off for years, because before 2009 no one was testing the water for heavy metals. It was only after Ben Lomond Water replaced the council water boards that testing for heavy metals started.
‘In Ringarooma, where the lead is in the bore supply, it may simply be from some change in geology in the mineralisation that is naturally in the ground in an area,’ Mr Beswick says. ‘We really do not know. In Avoca, the cadmium levels are coming, we believe, out of the sediment of the South Esk River, which has come down from the various creeks from mining operations that have occurred in the past.’
The link between the contamination and past mining is most obvious in the town of Royal George, also in Tasmania’s northeast, where three years ago the town’s drinking water source, the local river, was found to have arsenic 200 times the allowed drinking water standard and lead 50 times the standard.
Royal George has had its communal water tank for years now. Pat Thomas lives across the road from the tank, and says she’d like a better water supply, ‘where you could turn it on and get some nice pure water’ without worrying about toxic contaminants from mine tailings.
‘I don’t think there’s many places in Tasmania you can get that now,’ she says. ‘That’s a thing of the past.’