Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Yarra pollution poses serious health risk -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

KERRY O'BRIEN: Waste and toxic materials in Melbourne's iconic Yarra River have been a source of
consternation for as long as locals can remember. But recent life-threatening illnesses amongst
kayakers and the discovery of at least 100 dead eels have set alarm bells ringing. Levels of ecoli
bacteria in the river have been dramatically reduced since the 1970s, but they're still up to 22
times higher than the level considered safe for swimming. Mick Bunworth spoke to some of the people
who've had unpleasant first-hand experience of the dirty Yarra.

MARK SHORTER (KAYAKER): I think it is definitely unsafe to be paddling if there is a possibility
that you will be going into the water.

MICK BUNWORTH: Mark Shorter is 27 and, until last November, was extremely fit. Hiking, rock
climbing and kayaking were the outdoor education teacher's stock-in-trade. But he believes one
fleeting immersion in Melbourne's Yarra River almost cost him his life.

MARK SHORTER: It was the day after a big rain, so there was plenty of water there and good
conditions for kayaking. I happened to roll over and unfortunately got a bit of water up my nose.
When you're down there at water level in your boat, you can smell it and you can see the pollution
in the water, and kayakers know that it's not a good thing to get any in your mouth or nose.

MICK BUNWORTH: Several weeks later, Mark Shorter was diagnosed with leptospirosis, a disease
usually contracted through contact with the urine of infected livestock.

MARK SHORTER: I had never heard of leptospirosis, and even when they diagnosed me, I thought I'd be
getting better in a couple of days, but I ended up with kidney failure, liver failure, lung
haemorrhaging and, yeah, I was in intensive care for two weeks.

MICK BUNWORTH: You suffered delusions during this time. Can you tell us about that?

MARK SHORTER: Well, the third day when I was in intensive care, I was wearing an oxygen mask to
help my lungs, and I think one night I was quite feverish, and I started thinking for some reason
that there was this conspiracy going on, that I wasn't actually sick and the nurses were conspiring
to keep me there in the hospital, and I was ripping off my oxygen mask and trying to get up and
leave the hospital, but obviously I was in no condition to do that at all, but, yeah, the nurses
ended up having to hold me down and put the mask back on, and that night they sedated me and put a
tube down my throat, and I was out of it for about 11 days.

MICK BUNWORTH: Six months before Mark Shorter got sick, mathematician Dr Fraser Murrell was rowing
a single scull along the Yarra. His boat tipped and he was forced out and onto what he thought was
a stable muddy bank. Sinking to his waist, he suffered a deep cut to his leg.

DR FRASER MURRELL (ROWER): I went home and I poured some antiseptic into a bath and I had a bath
and opened the wound up and cleaned it all out of all the mud and stuff that was in there and
really took care of it, and you know, was quite worried about it immediately.

MICK BUNWORTH: His fears were confirmed a week later.

DR FRASER MURRELL: The initial symptoms were flu-like, except for this enormous cough. After about
another week, I started to develop swelling lumps on my arms, and at this point, I thought there
was something quite wrong, so I went off to the doctor, and he diagnosed an infection of the blood
vessels. The subsequent blood tests show that there's still a source of infection in the body
somewhere, and we're trying to trace that.

MICK BUNWORTH: And then there's this: more than 100 eels have been found floating dead in the
river. The Environment Protection Authority says their decomposed state makes it difficult to
determine the exact cause of death. Of course, sick people and dead eels have really captured the
public's imagination and led to a debate about how to really clean the river up. Now, some
scientists are suggesting the State Government should take some of the water it was going to
allocate to the city's wholesaler and release it from the Yarra's upper catchment to really flush
the Yarra out and improve its health.

BRIAN FINLAYSON (UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE): I would have thought that as part of the process of
signing off on the bulk entitlement order, the minister should be satisfied that the water quality
issues have been dealt with, at least as far as they concern the amount of water coming down the
river, and I don't think we know enough about the relationship between the amount of flow left in
the river and the water quality dynamics of the estuary to be able to make that decision at this

JOHN THWAITES (VICTORIAN ENVIRONMENT MINISTER): We have not signed off a bulk allocation, and
before we do any of that, we take proper advice and do the proper research. We've said that the
Yarra is safe for people to use for kayaking and canoeing, but people should not be swimming or
using the Yarra after heavy rains. After heavy rains, you've got the stormwater of a city of 4
million people in that catchment, and that can lead to health risks.

MICK BUNWORTH: Melbourne University hydrologist Professor Brian Finlayson believes part of the
Yarra's problem is that different stakeholders are responsible for it. If you're in the water, it's
Melbourne Water. If you're on the banks, it's either the local council, VicRoads or the catchment

BRIAN FINLAYSON: If you think of the urbanised area around the Yarra River, which is split up into
a whole lot of separate councils, and the stormwater from the drainage systems of each of those
council areas finishes up in the Yarra, and so part of the problem in the Yarra is related to how
clean the councils keep their streets or how well their litter control programs are.

MICK BUNWORTH: This debate over water quality has long been as murky as the river itself.

GEOFF WATSON (JOURNALIST): 100 years ago, they were taking water out of this river for drinking.
Today, you'd be pretty foolish to even swim in it, let alone drink it.

MICK BUNWORTH: 'This Day Tonight' reporter Geoff Watson gave the Yarra this bleak assessment 33
years ago.

GEOFF WATSON: It's not surprising that they have a joke about the Yarra in Melbourne. They say that
if you fell into it, you'd probably break your neck.

PETER SCOTT (MELBOURNE WATER): Since the 1970s, the quality of the Yarra River has improved
greatly, and this is due to a major sewerage expansion program, it's due to the removal of septic
tanks and the diversion of all industrial waste into the sewerage system.

MICK BUNWORTH: Better, but by no means perfect; and so community concern about the river continues
to ebb and flow, buoyed now by a government promise to have the Yarra safe for swimming within
three years.

MARK SHORTER: It's a bizarre feeling to wake up and have this blank two-week period in your mind
that you've just lost. It took me a couple of weeks to fill in the gaps and realise actually how
crook I was and how close I came to dying.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Mick Bunworth with that report.