Writings: Fire ant nests exploding in new housing estates. Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated its responsibility.

There is an explosion of fire ant nests in new housing estates on the edge of the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone: threatening the safety and well-being of the residents and poised to spread even further. People carelessly or accidentally moving fire ants in truck-loads of soil, mulch, compost, hay or potted plants is the most common cause of fire ants spreading. Fire ant experts said we could not eradicate fire ants if we could not stop them spreading. Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated it responsibility for controlling the movement of fire ants and fire ant carriers like soil and mulch and have dumped that responsibility onto building developers. 23 May 2017

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Fire ants have been found in a new housing estate in Upper Kedron, on the edge of the Brisbane City Council area and threatening the Moreton Regional Council area.

Fire ants have been found in a new housing estate at Yarrabilba in the Logan City Council area.

A new housing estate in Ripley in the Ipswich City Council area is full of fire ants.

A housing development at Pimpama in the Gold Coast City Council area has over 200 nests.

Development sites are particularly attractive to fire ants who like to build nests in disturbed soil. An infested housing estate poses a huge threat to the safety and well-being its residents. Wearing thongs, having backyard barbeques, gardening or just letting the kids run around will be out of the question. Dozens of ants will swarm aggressively and inflict multiple burning stings on anyone that disturbs their nest. The stings turn into itchy pustules that last for days. The pustules can become infected. Some people go into anaphylactic shock. Some people die.

Fire ants are infesting new housing estates because Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated its responsibility for controlling the spread of fire ants. Fire ant experts have said we have no hope of eradicating fire ants if we can’t stop them spreading.

A large team of Biosecurity Fire Ant Inspectors used to work with developers and other industries to develop risk management plans to mitigate their risk of spreading fire ants.  Inspectors used to monitor a business’ compliance with their plan and inspect their sites for fire ants. Inspectors had the power to prosecute those who illegally moved fire ants or fire ant carriers. Not anymore.

Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated it responsibility for containing the spread of fire ant by using the Biosecurity Act 2014 to dump that responsibility onto the developers and other industries.

The Act creates a ‘General Biosecurity Obligation’ which means that people and organisations living or working in fire ant biosecurity zones are legally responsible for not spreading fire ants. This is nothing new. The Plant Protection Regulation 2002 made it illegal to move fire ants or fire ant carriers. Many residents and community minded businesses did all they could to mitigate their risk of spreading fire ants: but some didn’t and fire ants continued to spread.

During consultation about the Act, industry groups supported the idea of some level of community biosecurity responsibility, but doubted the General Biosecurity Obligation would work. They said people would need to know if they lived or worked in a fire ant biosecurity zone and what to do. The Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone map is now nearly a year out of date and movement controls keep changing. 

Developers, not Biosecurity Queensland, now have to inspect new development sites for fire ants. But visual inspections are notoriously unreliable because young fire ant nests can take months to emerge above ground.

Industry groups said that if fire movement controls were expensive, businesses would not report infestations or illegally dump fire ant infested materials. Biosecurity Queensland has known that illegal dumping has been a problem for the program from the beginning. The ‘General Biosecurity Obligation’ has done nothing to address that problem.

And while industry groups were prepared to shoulder some of the responsibilities for containing the spread of fire ants, they were concerned about the government’s ability to meet its share of the responsibility: given that Biosecurity Queensland has drastically cut the number of Biosecurity Inspectors down to a mere handful.

Legislation did not stop the spread of fire ants after 2002 and with fire ant nests exploding in new housing estates, neither is the Biosecurity Act 2014.

Biosecurity Queensland has spent $400m of public money over the past sixteen years, much of it wasted. Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated its responsibility to contain the spread of fire ants. The fire ant infestation in south-east Queensland now covers 400,000ha: ten times more than in 2001.

The Australian Agricultural Ministers Council will meet in July to decide the future of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. For the sake of Queensland and the rest of Australia we have to hope the Ministers decide to continue to fund a fire ant program. But the Ministers will be throwing more good public money after bad if Biosecurity Queensland continues to run any future fire ant program.