Gympie producer in contamination fight

Widgee Engineering relocation leaves uncertain future for beef producer


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PADDOCK LOCKUP: Bill Pukallus and Anna Hobbs-Pukallus have closed down paddocks meant for their beef cattle due to contamination concerns from a neighboring steel manufacturer. Picture - Martin Bunyard.

PADDOCK LOCKUP: Bill Pukallus and Anna Hobbs-Pukallus have closed down paddocks meant for their beef cattle due to contamination concerns from a neighboring steel manufacturer. Picture - Martin Bunyard.

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Normally most livestock producers are smiling during good rainfall events, but Widgee’s Pukallus family become more concerned and anxious.

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Normally most livestock producers are smiling during good rainfall events, but Widgee’s Pukallus family become more concerned and anxious.

For over two years Bill Pukallus and Anna Hobbs-Pukallus have been fighting to prove contamination on their rural property from a neighboring, structural steel manufacturer, Widgee Engineering.

Some of the Pukallus family's cattle on their property called Currawan Park, Widgee.

Some of the Pukallus family's cattle on their property called Currawan Park, Widgee.

Soil test samples taken from the Pukallus’s beef cattle property, called Currawan Park, on July 11 this year returned some “very high concentrations of iron, manganese, zinc, nickel and antimony well above the expected background concentrations”, according to the Southern Cross University’s Environmental Analysis Laboratory.

The Pukallus family first raised the issue through a written letter to Gympie Regional Council on September 29 in 2015. The couple have been living on their current property for the past 30 years.

The Pukallus family's orginal letter of complaint to the Gympie Shire Coucil about Widgee Engineering's activities.

The Pukallus family's orginal letter of complaint to the Gympie Shire Coucil about Widgee Engineering's activities.

“I’m concerned about the potential contamination of our beef cattle from both storm water runoff onto our property from the Widgee Engineering site and industrial dust as well, so I’ve decided not to graze the closest paddocks to the steel works,” Mr Pukallus said. 

“All rural landowners across Queensland could potentially be at risk of having this type of industry conducted on a nearby property and face the same soil contamination concerns as us until they go through a long process with local council to stop an unapproved activity.

“I feel the onus of proof has been on us to prove pollution, from storm water runoff and manufacturing dust, on our property instead of the steel manufacturer gaining correct approval through our local council.”

Mrs Hobbs-Pukallus believes they deserve compensation for loss of property value, stress and environmental clean-up costs.

The highest concentration in the Pukallus family’s soil analysis was the element called Chromium, which was found at more than 50 times higher than expected background levels and greater than standard levels of factory and industrial sites.

Results of soil testing on Bill Pukallus and Anna Hobbs-Pukallus property near Widgee.

Results of soil testing on Bill Pukallus and Anna Hobbs-Pukallus property near Widgee.

A study by America’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry stated “those workers at greatest risk (of Chromium toxicity) are those involved in stainless steel welding, chromate production, chrome plating, and chrome pigment industries”.

A research paper by University of Minnesota Beef Team stated “cattle can tolerate mineral levels well beyond their requirement; however, it is important to be aware that any mineral, if consumed in high enough amounts, can be toxic”.

“In extreme cases, however, mineral toxicity can lead to chronic problems and even death...in addition, indirect effects of an over-supply of minerals may lead to unsafe accumulation of minerals in meat and milk, and may also impact the environment,” the research paper stated.

Email of the soil test results from the Pukallus family's property.

Email of the soil test results from the Pukallus family's property.

Last week the Gympie Regional Council elected to refuse an application by Widgee Engineering to approve the specialized structural steel works development at its current location near Widgee and instead gave the steel works owners, Pete and Di Saal, two years to relocate the business.

Storm water runoff into the Pukallus family's property situated across the road from Widgee Engineering's manufacturing plant.

Storm water runoff into the Pukallus family's property situated across the road from Widgee Engineering's manufacturing plant.

Widgee Engineering was contacted by Queensland Country Life but declined to comment on the matter.

“It’s not good enough for Widgee Engineering to have two more years of operating at the current location with no restrictions on their activities and potential to pollute our beef cattle property,” Mr Pukallus said.

“I want it moved immediately.”

Gympie Regional Council mayor Mick Curran voted against moving Widgee Engineering to a new location due to “council giving passive consent to the business activity through varying development approvals since 1993”.

“Widgee Engineering also provides some employment opportunities for the local community,” Cr Curran said.  

“We are undertaking a review of our 2013 planning scheme, so that we can see what is good agricultural land because we need to protect that.

Widgee Engineering manufacturing plant during a recent rainfall event.

Widgee Engineering manufacturing plant during a recent rainfall event.

“Agriculture is a major factor in our GDP (Gross Domestic Product) within the region, but there are certainly areas listed as good agricultural land when in fact it’s not!”

According to the GRC meeting minutes, Widgee Engineering has operated at the current site for 23 years and “through the diversification process the business has physically grown unlawfully without obtaining required planning, building and plumbing development approvals”.

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