Uranium Contaminated Indigenous Australian Communities' Water

Date of publication: 
6 May 2015

Western Australia’s essential services program has failed safe drinking water tests in 80 percent of remote Indigenous communities.

Concentrations of uranium as high as “double” safe levels have contaminated drinking water in Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, according to a report released Wednesday.

Unsafe levels of uranium were found in the water supplies of four Indigenous communities during tests between 2012 and 2014, according to a report from the Office of the Auditor General Western Australia.

“Uranium leaches naturally from soils, rocks and natural deposits, but is also released through mining processes,” the audit report stated.

According to the report, uranium is “carcinogenic and high concentrations can cause kidney inflammation.”

All four communities had water supplied by the state-run remote area essential services program. While noting the program provided “reliable” access to water, the audit report stated, “The quality of drinking water often falls short of Australian standards.”

One community, Tjuntjuntjara, failed 18 out of 22 tests for uranium.

“Some of these results were up to double the safe level,” the report stated.

The community of Tjuntjuntjara is largely comprised of Pilanguru people, who were uprooted from their homelands across the border in South Australia in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for British nuclear weapons testing near Woomera.

Among the other key findings of the auditor’s report was a finding that either E. coli or Naegleria was being detected in at least one Indigenous community every month for a period of two years.

“Both of these can cause serious illness and are potentially fatal,” the report said.

While E. coli is a bacteria that can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting, Naegleria is an ameba that attacks the brain. Although Naegleria infections are rare, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the fatality rate is over 97 percent. The ameba can only cause infection when inhaled through the nose.

According to the audit report, “The presence of these microbes (E. coli and Naegleria) means that the drinking water is non-compliant with the Australian guideline.”

The auditor also found 14 Indigenous communities where nitrates were above safe drinking levels for babies.

“Excessive nitrates in the diet reduce blood’s ability to carry oxygen. In infants, this can cause the potentially life-threatening Blue Baby Syndrome, where the skin takes on a bluish color and the child has trouble breathing,” the report stated.

In all, the state’s essential services program had failed safe drinking water tests in 80 percent of Indigenous communities being served.

In a final blow to the government, the auditor’s report stated the Department of Housing – which oversees the remote area essential services program – is “not getting full value.” The report said the department may have “overpaid” for services under the program like water due to “poor contracting,” “poor oversight,” inconsistent reporting and “a lack of inspections.”

Many of the communities mentioned in the report are the same Indigenous areas threatened with closure by the Western Australian government in recent months. The state government has claimed it can’t afford to provide basic services like water as many as 150 of the 274 Indigenous communities across the state, and said many may have to be scuttled.