E Coli, Uranium and Nitrates Found in Water of WA Remote Communities

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Jarlmadangah, one of Western Australia’s remote Indigenous communities that has failed recent water safety tests. Photo Credit: Calla Wahlquist for the Guardian.

Article courtesy of Calla Wahlquist | May 6, 2015 | The Guardian | Shared as educational material

Eighty per cent of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia whose essential services are delivered under a state-run program failed water safety tests by testing positive for E coli or Naegleria.

Between July 2012 and July 2014, E coli or Naegleria microbes were found in regular water tests of 68 of the 84 communities whose water, power and sewerage is provided under the state-run remote area essential services program. Of those that failed the national water safety standards tests, 39 failed at least twice and 29 failed three or more times.

In addition to those breaches, the water supplies of one in five communities in the program showed unsafe levels of nitrates or uranium contamination.

The results were contained in a report tabled in parliament on Wednesday by the office of the state’s auditor general, Colin Murphy.

Among the worst-affected communities for water quality were the west Kimberley community of Jarlmadangah, about 225km from Broome, which failed microbiological tests five months in a row last year, and nearby Koorabye, which failed 11 times in two years.

Discussing Jarlmadangah, the report said: “The community told us that by the time they get a note from a failed water test they have already been drinking it for a week or two. They routinely boil water ‘for babies and young ones’.”

The report said both Jarlmadangah and Koorabye had been reliant on UV water treatment systems, which don’t work if the water is cloudy. A chlorination unit was installed at Koorabye in July 2014 and Jarlmadangah is set to get one this month, but 32 other communities remain reliant on the less-effective UV system.

In terms of chemical contamination, 14 communities exceeded safe nitrate levels for bottle-fed babies under three months, and three communities exceeded safe levels for uranium concentration. Tjuntjuntjara, a Spinifex community 670km east of Kalgoorlie, failed 18 out of 22 of tests for uranium levels, with the report saying some results “were up to double the safe level”.

The report assessed only the state-run program, which operates in 84 of the state’s 274 remote communities and is not directly affected by federal funding changes.

But the WA Department of Housing, which runs the state-funded essential services program, raised the issue of a lack of federal funds in its response to water safety concerns, saying that while it could address “short-term” risks by supplying bottled water to affected communities, “a permanent solution to long-term and ongoing water quality risks is outside the scope of [the remote area essential services program] and will require significant investment”.

“In this regard the department notes the unilateral withdrawal of the commonwealth from its historical funding role,” the department said.

Guardian Australia understands the auditor general’s office began work on the report before WA’s premier, Colin Barnett, suggested some communities might have to close.

That debate was sparked when the federal government announced it would hand its share of responsibility for essential services in Aboriginal communities to the state government, with Tony Abbott later saying the government did not have a responsibility to fund the “lifestyle choices” of Aboriginal people.

On Friday, Barnett said suggestions that communities would be closed in the near future were false, but said he expected “a significant number” of communities would close as a result of changes to funding and service delivery, the framework for which is expected to be soon released by the state government.

The remote area essential services program discussed in the auditor general’s report is funded wholly by the state government and managed by the WA Department of Housing. It is responsible for providing and maintaining water, power and sewerage services to 49 communities in the Kimberley, 22 in the Pilbara and 13 in the Goldfields.

The report found that not only was the water in many communities unsafe, the service providers had also failed to conduct scheduled sewerage tests, meaning they could not guarantee that sewage was safe. Nineteen communities reported sewerage overflows between 2012 and 2014. In one community, Mowanjum, 10km from Derby, the sewerage overflowed eight times in 11 months.

The report said there was “poor oversight” of contracts and spending on the program and that 24 of the 84 communities failed basic criteria for being included in the program, which is that communities must have a population of more than 50 people.

It said spending was “unplanned and uncoordinated”. It added: “We saw a complete solar-powered system funded by the commonwealth that had been installed but could never be connected because it was incompatible with the existing power system.

“At another community, a mining company built and connected a facility to power, without any prior consultation with [the department of] housing.”

In a foreword to the report, Murphy said the state-run program was likely to continue and grow regardless of the outcome of the community closure debate, and said he hoped the report would “inform … that much wider debate”.

But he said the management of the program limited “its effectiveness and efficiency”.

Talk of remote communities closures was sparked by the loss of the federally funded municipal and essential services program (Muns), which will transfer to the state along with $90m, or two years of equivalent funding, on 1 July.

The Muns program provided funding for diesel subsidies for electricity generators, road maintenance, rubbish collection and dog control.

In a response to the auditor general’s report, the Department of Housing said it was integrating services previously provided by the federal government into its own essential services program.

 

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