Simon Bevilacqua was a surf lifesaver as a boy when parents cheered their kids into the stained foam.
Simon Bevilacqua was a surf lifesaver as a boy when parents cheered their kids into the stained foam.

Tasmania’s toxic cradle — the days it rained acid


THE environmental awakening experienced by ocean evangelist Craig Leeson brought back my memories of growing up on the North-West Coast. Leeson's amazing story, told by award-winning reporter Tim Martain in the TasWeekend magazine, is one of journey and discovery.

As a young Burnie lifesaver, Leeson began to ask questions about why he emerged from the surf with sore eyes. A fourth-generation journalist at the Advocate, Leeson investigated and found his stinging eyes were caused by toxic pollution from the local pulp mill. He wrote of his discovery and so began his first big environmental stoush, a battle that would lead him to global acclaim as a filmmaker for his 2017 documentary A Plastic Ocean, in which naturalist legend David Attenborough appears and Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio was executive producer.

Sir David Attenborough.
Sir David Attenborough.

I, too, was a surf lifesaver as a boy on the North-West, although a few kilometres west of Burnie at Somerset.

I recall a surf carnival, the national titles, at which interstate competitors refused to enter the water because it was orange and the waves were stirring up brown froth and depositing it on the beach.

Competitors were required to run between the beach flags, through the dirty foam, before diving into a tangerine sea that was almost glowing under the blaze of a summer sun.

The NSW kids were aghast, adamant they would not enter waves of citrus that looked more akin to an alien sea under the toxic plumes of the planet Jupiter than here on Earth. Their worried mums and dads quickly agreed.

As locals, however, we had been repeatedly assured by authorities that the orange sea was perfectly safe, and we not infrequently swam in it. The orange was effluent from the Tioxide paint pigment plant at Heybridge, east of Burnie, which pumped pollution deep into Bass Strait. The flow of the strait would usually disperse the waste so it was no longer discernible from the deep blue.

On some days, however, the sweeping current refused to remove Tioxide's stain, like a toilet failing to flush, and effluent would flood back to the shore to be trapped by the rolling waves. The pollution would then spread along the coast, sometimes beyond Somerset to the west and as far as Lillico Beach in the east. That's what happened the day of the national titles.

The sand on some beaches was stained red from the effluent. Local shop owners made light of it by flippantly selling plastic sachets of "Burnie's famous red sand" as souvenirs to perplexed tourists, who struggled to discern whether the poker-faced North-Westers were taking the piss.

The souvenirs were like the best of newspaper cartoons in that they were instantly funny because the subject matter was so poignantly real, but became strangely disorienting and surreal the more you thought about it. Where exactly the joke lies, and who it is on, depends on how deep you look.

At times the light-as-air brown foam created by waves stirring up the effluent was deposited in clumps on the beach higher than a metre. The cloudlike, billowing forms were fun to run through but disappointingly unsatisfying to kick. We made hilarious hats and pretend beards from it. Wind gusts whipped clumps erratically down the beach, mesmerising dogs and kids into endless games of chasings.

Locals were assured the effluent posed no health risk and we demonstrated our trust at the surf carnival, to the cheers of our parents, by running through the foam into the orange with our boards, paddling around the buoys, and racing to shore. Soon most other states were doing it too.

Tioxide was just one factory spewing pollution into Burnie and its surrounds during my, and Leeson's, childhood.


SMOKE AND EFFLUENT: Burnie’s pulp mill.
SMOKE AND EFFLUENT: Burnie’s pulp mill.

The pulp mill at Emu Bay, which the filmmaker found caused his eyes to sting, pumped years of effluent into the strait and the vile smelling smoke from its huge chimneys was acrid. On bad days, residents of Somerset, 8km west, were told to keep doors and windows closed to provide respite from the foul and lingering rotten-egg-gas stench. It was disgusting.

Then there was the North-West Acid plant at Burnie, which made sulphuric acid and in the process created acid rain that killed gardens and ate most other things it landed on, including steel structures like bridges. Some residents were infuriated by the tiny yellow-stained holes that appeared on washing when left to dry on the clothesline on the days it rained acid.

Tioxide and the acid plant are long gone now and the pulp mill is substantially smaller and far less polluting.

It is incredible to think such a toxic childhood - noxious pollution floating in the sea, blowing in the wind and falling in the rain - could produce a filmmaker of environmental awareness and daring.

Perhaps it is precisely because of Leeson's polluted boyhood he became who he did? I can't imagine it was easy writing a negative story about the pulp mill in the Advocate, which was infamous for its unquestioning pro-industry agenda. Maybe daring to ask questions of such a protected industry as a cub reporter was the making of the man?

I reckon Leeson learnt early in his journalistic career that questions can be dynamite, and that when questions are being actively discouraged is usually when and where they are most urgently required.

Originally published as Tasmania's toxic cradle - the days it rained acid

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