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“Slap on the Wrist” for company that killed forest in State Park by Herbicide Spray Drift

In June 2020, Friends of the Earth found a potential spray drift incident which impacted on a two kilometre native forest boundary of a pine plantation located in Holey Plains State Park. The impacted site is ~14km south east of the Gippsland town of Rosedale and is owned by Hancock Victorian Plantations.

In September 2022 FoE was advised that the investigation and associated legal proceedings against the spray contracting firm by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (Agriculture Victoria) had concluded. We were advised that information regarding the incident was confidential but that information pertaining to the incident and subsequent investigation might be accessible via Freedom of Information.

Our heavily redacted Freedom of Information request came through in the last week of November. The name of the company involved in the incident has not been included in the FoI, but they were contracted to Hancock Victorian Plantations. The investigation carried out by Agriculture Victoria was impressive and thorough.

November 2022 - Holey Plains State Park, adjoining pine plantations owned by Hancock Victorian Plantations, 2 1/2 years after spraying took place. Perhaps more than 50 native forest trees may have been killed during the incident, with countless numbers of understorey plants. Were endangered species such as Wellington Mint Bush and Martins Toadlet impacted by the spray drift?

Sites along plantation boundaries where vegetation samples recorded pesticide residues, up to 150m from spray target area.

Many trees have appeared to have survived the incident, but unbelievably these are now threatened by logging. Species listed on the Victorian Biodiversity Atlas that have been found in Holey Plains State Park near this location include: Powerful Owl (vulnerable), Australian Owlet-nightjar, White throated nightjar, Jacky Winter, Koala, Lace Monitor (Endangered), Southern Bullfrog, Common froglet, Martins Toadlet (critically endangered), Broom Spurge, Golden Grevillia (vulnerable), Sandhill sword-sedge, Narrow Comb Fern, Wellington Mint Bush (endangered), Sticky Boronia and Coral Lichen.

Dead vegetation inside Holey Plains State Park observed by FoE in November 2022

The FoI revealed that there was not just one spray drift incident, but several that took place over three days in late March 2020. 13 charges, including injuriously impacting native plants, breaching herbicide label instructions, using herbicides in excess of label rates and lack of appropriate record keeping were laid against a contract spraying company in March 2022, with the case ending in August 2022. Maximum fines for the offences could have amounted to more than $66,000, but for some reason weren't applied by the Magistrate.

There were a number of herbicides detected in leaves of vegetation adjoining the plantation, with impacted vegetation as far as 150m inside the Holey Plains State Park. The herbicides included Glyphosate (Wipe-Out 450 Herbicide), AMPA (a Glyphosate metabolite), Metsulfuron Methyl (Kenso Agcare Ken-Met 600 WG) and Hexazinone (Nufarm Grunt 750 WDG Herbicide).

Glyphosate drift was recorded in vegetation at 17 locations including in 2 locations in the tree canopy 15m-20m off the ground.  AMPA was recorded at one location offsite, Metsulfuron Methyl at 5 locations and Hexazinone at 4 locations. Clopyralid was not detected off site.

All 4 herbicides can be applied aerially, although hexazinone is only allowed to be used in a tree plantation as a water dispersible granule. So how did it end up in vegetation 100m from where it was applied? It is likely that the hexazinone moved offsite during rainfall. Hexazinone is extremely mobile in water and remains in soils for years after application. The Victorian Government banned aerial spraying of non-pellitised Hexazinone in the 1990’s after a series of serious spray drift incidents.

Holey Plains State Park in Central Gippsland is effectively surrounded by pine plantations, all of which are reliant on chemical props for their success as a tree crop.

One glaring problem with pesticide regulation in Victoria is that it can avoid taking into account affected vegetation that does not have an economic value. It is actually a defence to Section 40 of the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals (Control of Use) Act 1992 to prove that affected vegetation has no economic value. Agriculture Victoria had to provide an expert report showing that the impacted vegetation in Holey Plains State Park did indeed have an economic value including: Amenity values for recreational users of the park, values to the apiary industry, carbon storage and sequestration values and biodiversity values, including existence values arising from the presence of koalas and species listed under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act.

In terms of an legal outcome to the event, the company that caused the spray drift was only granted a Diversion Notice, lasting 12 months, which means they must obtain Aerial Improvement Management System (AIMS) accreditation through the Aerial Application Association of Australia and also pay $1000 to the Yarram Yarram Landcare Network. This could be the first time that such a Diversion Notice has been granted in a spray drift incident and it is unclear why the Magistrate took this option. It is also unclear why the company involved was employed to carry out the spraying without AIMS accreditation and why Hancock would employ such a company when they have Forest Stewardship Council certification.

"Magistrates’ Remarks:

Accept that general deterrence relevant. Donation amount significantly reduced due to the time/money required to achieve compliance with the AIMS conditions. Also take into account the community support that the company provides. Sentence: Diversion for a period of 12 months: - The accused obtain AIMS accreditation through the AAAA and provide proof to Agriculture Victoria and the Court by 15 August 2023."

To rub salt into the wounds, it would appear that DELWP is proposing that 17.8 hectares of impacted vegetation in the State Park be removed, lopped or destroyed through a Detailed Assessment Pathway process.  Some of the area may include Wellington Mint-bush (Prostanthera galbraithiae). It is unclear how DELWP define large and small trees none of which appear on their application to have been impacted by spray drift. It is also unclear why DELWP has proposed a plan to potentially knock over vegetation was may have survived the spraying incident and to destroy native vegetation which is now regenerating post spraying.

The case has profound implications for areas surrounding pine plantations elsewhere in the State. For instance the State Government is now planning to massively expand pine plantation establishment throughout the Strzelecki Ranges and Central Gippsland. The Strzelecki Ranges is already suffering through destruction of key Koala Feed Preference Trees due to plantation logging and associated roading safety issues. Spray drift impacting on key forest adjoining plantations, including koala habitat over a wide area in the region is a major concern as is the potential health impacts for people living near plantations, where spray drift can and does occur.

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