A remote Aboriginal community 200 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs continues to rely on drinking water that may be slowly poisoning them.
The problem at Laramba has been known since 2008 – high concentrations of uranium that naturally occur in the soil have been slowly seeping into the groundwater as it is extracted from two bore sites in the remote town.
The scale of the toxic contamination was discovered when the government-owned company responsible for supplying utilities to Laramba took precise measurements in 2018 and found uranium concentrations of 0.046 mg/L present in the water supply, almost three times safe levels.
According to national guidelines published by the National, Health and Medical Council, the amount of uranium in drinking water should not be more than 0.017 mg/L.
After years of inaction, residents of the community tried to get the problem fixed by taking their landlords – then known as the Department of Local Government, Housing and Community Development (DLGHCD) – to court.
In July this year, a NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) decision quashed the case brought against the department when it held that landlords were only responsible for the pipes on the property – not what flows through them.
However, the question remained: who was actually responsible?
Transparency and Accountability
So far, there has been no rush to fix the problem in Laramba.
This failure to address the problem is partly due to cost – a justification that has been used in the past by territory and state governments across the country to shutter remote communities – but that is not the only reason.
Another is the lack of laws regulating water quality outside the 18 gazetted towns in the NT, which means roughly 72 Indigenous communities have been left to make do.
The final factor is the way water is supplied.
Within the NT, drinking water in remote communities is supplied through Indigenous Essential Services (IES), a not-for-profit company funded by the NT government and run as a subsidiary of PWC.
However, while IES and PWC are separate organisations, there is considerable overlap between the two.
Both organisations are chaired by John Langoulant – a former Western Australia state treasurer and prominent Perth-based businessman – and share the same board of directors, while IES’s 2019 annual report mentions PWC 62 times in a 65 page document.
Last year IES paid PWC $16.9 million to run the “accounting, computing, human resources, secretarial services and utility services” of its operations, including a $5.6 million “management fee”.
It also recorded $5.3 million in revenue from the sale of water to communities like Laramba.
Though IES received $99 million in government funding – mostly for a remote solar power project – it remains unclear what it has actually done with that money.
In Laramba’s case, the company’s annual report says IES spent $6 million to replace 22 kilometres of leaking concrete and asbestos piping in the community during the 2018-2019 financial year – but offered no detail on any plans to filter the community’s water.
Business As Usual
When NITV News contacted PWC in the wake of the NTCAT decision in July to ask what plans it was taking to fix the problem, the company refused to say.
The company has also refused to disclose relevant information regarding its operations in three Freedom of Information (FOI) applications lodged by NITV News.
PWC drew on Section 5(4) of the NT Information Act to refuse access to requested copies of emails and relevant documents. Section 5(4) provision shields government-owned corporations from oversight by limiting the type of FOI applications that can be made.
In a fourth FOI application to Department of Local Government, Housing and Community Development seeking access to the “Service Level Agreement” that outlines the contractual relationship between IES and the department, the company appeared to instruct the department against release.
Notes from a conversation between the DLGHCD information officer and a “signatory” from IES obtained through FOI show how the company worked to stop information being released.
“I was advised (a signatory to the agreement) that PWC is not required to meet the provisions of the Information Act 2002 as they are determined to be a Government Owned Corporation, and as such do not have to comply with the legislation in respect of their corporate documents and business operations,” the notes said.
The company also relied on a confidentiality clause in its agreement with the government.
“I was reminded by the signatory of the Confidentiality clause in the agreement and without mutual consent as part of the partnership, the Department should not release the document. The signatory then advised formally, that consent to release the Agreement was not supported and access was refused,” the notes say.
Professor David Watts from LaTrobe University – who helped draft the Northern Territory’s first Information Act – said though the NT FOI laws have been amended 26 times since they were passed, sections such as this have not kept pace.
“These are techniques commonly used by public sector organisations to escape FOI and escape from accountability and transparency,” Prof Watts told NITV News.
"One of the ways of doing that is to outsource. You can say there’s a commercial agreement and it's not covered by FOI, but if it’s done by the government itself, it would have been covered.
“So this practice is completely inimical to accountability but FOI laws haven't kept up."
When NITV News contacted PWC for comment, a spokesperson declined to comment.
“It would be inappropriate for us to respond to your questions given the legal proceedings on foot between members of the Laramba community and the NT Government,” a spokesperson said.
Risks of Cancer, Kidney Damage
To date there have been no real answers on that point – let alone other questions about the potential health risks posed by consumption of contaminated water.
When asked about the risk to human health at an estimates hearing committee in June 2018, the NT Power and Water Corporation's (PWC) General Manager Remote Operations, David Coucill, said the company was “aware” of the problem but contamination was “not at levels that concern us in the near term”.
“The water is perfectly safe to drink today,” Mr Coucill said.
When asked how he had arrived at this conclusion, Mr Coucill said PWC relied on advice from the Department of Health to “make that call”.
This assessment – that Laramba’s water is safe to drink – would be repeated by former Minister for Essential Services, Dale Wakefield, in the wake of the NTCAT decision this year when she told the ABC that the risk to human health was minimal.
"The Department of Health has said, whilst [contamination levels] are over the World Health Organisation guidelines, there is no immediate threat to people's health and wellbeing," said Ms Wakefield.
"There are no studies to show water at that level will impact people's health."
Associate professor with the Nossal Institute for Global Health, School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne, Dr Tilman Ruff told NITV News that drinking water with more than the recommended level of uranium in it increased risk of kidney damage and cancer.
Dr Ruff said that Aboriginal people were especially at risk. As a community, Aboriginal people were more likely to suffer from kidney damage and children were particularly vulnerable to small increases in radiation.
Children are four-to-five times at risk of cancer from radiation than adults, said Dr Ruff with girls 40 per cent more likely than boys to develop cancer over their lifetime when exposed to the same amount of radiation.
“Any source of radiation adds to the level of lifetime cancer risk. It doesn't matter how you get it, it adds to the cancer risk. It all adds to health risk and should be minimised wherever possible,” he said.
“There are regulations for a reason.”
Change May Be Coming
With the recent NT election now over, there are hopes the situation in Laramba and similar communities will change.
A recent cabinet reshuffle saw the appointment of Chansey Paech – an Eastern Arrernte and Gruindji man – as Minister for Indigenous Essential Services.
While Mr Paech would not be drawn on questions of accountability, the minister said he had “listened to the people in the bush” and was “committed to resolving these legacy issues”.
“As a remote Member of Parliament, Minister for Remote Housing and Minister for Indigenous Essential Services, I have first-hand experience of water quality and supply issues in a number of remote communities across the NT,” Mr Paech said in a statement.
“I understand how important good drinking water is, and in my first week as the Minister for Indigenous Essential Services, I requested a plan to address these challenges, including in Laramba.
“I expect to receive the plan by the end of this month which will guide Government’s decisions on what is required to improve water security and quality in remote communities.”
The question now, at least for the people of Laramba, is how long it will take while the health of its community remains at risk.