Writings: General Manager of Biosecurity Queensland's fire ant program says it's OK to put warning signs on nests on construction sites, but not in public parks

John Jordan, General Manager of Biosecurity Queensland’s National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program told Steve Austin, ABC radio Brisbane: it’s OK to put up warning signs on fire ant nests on construction sites, but not in public parks. (This puts public safety at risk.) That he is ‘not surprised’ that, after seventeen year, fire ants are still infesting Fire Ant Biosecurity Zones, and doesn’t know how many nests are inside the Biosecurity Zone, because ‘It's such a large area.’ The Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone is now in a ‘suppression’ phase of the program. (Which means just spot treating nests reported by the public, but not broadcasting bait to kill immature and undetected nests.) Without the efforts of the program, fire ants would be in Sydney and Mackay by now. (Ten reviews of the program over seventeen years have said the fire ant program has no reliable and consistent data to support any claims about its performance.) 23rd July 2018

Now showing category: Writings

 Steve Austin ABC radio Brisbane 23rd July 2018

Interview with John Jordan, General Manager, National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program in Biosecurity Queensland and Dr Pam Swepson, former senior policy officer with the Fire Ant Program and Whistle-blower

S.A.     This is new because it is, once again, inside the Biosecurity Queensland security zone, but fire ants have been found in Rocklea. Again. Now fire ants are really harmful to other living things, not the least people. People dies of these fire ant stings in the United States every year. Here in south-east Queensland, people have been hospitalised with fire ant stings, One of those people was close to death, apparently. If a child is bitten playing in park it would be front page news.

John Jordan is the General Manager of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program in Biosecurity Queensland.  John Jordan, which park have you found another fire ant nest?

J.J.       Well, we found a single fire ant nest on Oxley Creek Common on Sherwood Road Rocklea.

S.A.     OK. Is it a big one? Is it a small one?

J.J.      It’s small.

S.A.     OK.  Are you surprised to find it there?

J.J.       No. Not at all.

S.A.     Why not? Given its inside the security zone, as it were?

J.J.       Well, it inside the biosecurity zone, yes, but it’s in an area we’re calling the suppression zone. We’re actually eradicating out west at the moment and so Oxley Common is a junction point in terms of other infestations and the ants can fly into that area. Also, the fact that we’ve got Oxley Creek, they can raft in, on occasion, as well. So, it’s not unexpected and its one of seventeen that, over the years, we’ve found in Oxley Creek. And we’ve moved to bait that with a bait that essentially puts the queen on the pill.

S.A.     So, you put a bait inside this fire ant nest?

J.J.       We put a corn bait around the fire ant nest and what happens is, the worker ants forage and bring that back and feed that to the queen. Following that, that’s the first step in eradication, and then we will do a direct nest injection of a chemical agent that will kill the nest over about three days. That will happen within the next two weeks.

S.A.     Alright. Is it correct you no longer tag or mark new nests when they’re found?

J.J.       It’s not correct that we don’t mark them. What we used to use was a flag and we’re progressively phasing that out in favour of GPS marking and electronic systems. And what we found was flags were often interfered with, either through animals or kids playing with them. They’re an attractant. So, we’re progressing phasing out the flags. And the only exception to that is, for example, if we’ve got a large development or an industry working on a particular site, with construction work going on that. We may still use those flags with a bit more information on those flags to tell workers on those sites. We’re progressively phasing them out.

S.A.     Alright. Now the reason why I ask this is because Oxley Common is a common area for families to play and re-create. If you don’t mark them clearly anymore, how do families or parents with children know what to steer clear of?

J.J.       Well, it’s very hard to know what to steer them clear of, anyway, in terms of a direct nest. The actual nest looks like a decomposed cow pat during the winter months and during the summer months, the nest essentially disappears. It’s not like a traditional ant nest. But the ants move out from that nest mound and forage anyway. And one of the things that is an issue, as soon as you mark something, people become curious about that. And so, there’s a little bit of ‘a damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ approach.

S.A.     John Jordan, is my guest. John Jordan is the General Manager of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program with Biosecurity Queensland.  This is ABC radio, Brisbane. Steve Austin’s my name.

S.A.     John, how many other sites of fire ants have been found inside the security zone?

J.J.       Inside the biosecurity zone?

S.A.     Yeah. How many other notifications have you got. Off the top of your head.

J.J.       Off the top of my head, I wouldn’t be able to answer. It’s such a large area.

S.A.     OK. Alright, so it happens every now and then, as I understand it.

J.J.       Well, that’s right and as I said, it’s to be expected, particularly. What we’re doing is working from the west, out at Laidley, through back towards the coast over ten years. And so, hopefully, as the treatment takes hold in the west, we’ll see less and less instances of reporting and infestation and until we get to the east we’ll probably see a continuing pattern of reporting. But we’re basically scaling back the area that we’re actively eradicating in, to do that properly: small chunks at a time and move east.

S.A.     Alright. Now you had a big operation, I think, on the Gold Coast, today. Or commenced today, why was that?

J.J.       It wasn’t necessarily a big operation. There were three sites on the Gold Coast that we detected a number of nest and we’ve had crews there for the last three weeks, following the same routine: putting out bait, allowing the ants to take that bait back to the queen and progressively doing nest injections. What we’re also doing is, we want to make sure that we’ve caught all of the ants: detected all the ants. And so, in that regard, community are the eyes on the ground, so to speak. We can find some of the nests, but people in their own backyards, on sporting fields, in parks, in every area: they know their patch and they can report those ants in. And so, what we’re doing on the Gold Coast is hiving (unclear) in community awareness. And hopefully, we won’t get too many reports, but if we do get reports then that’s great, because we’re finding the ants. Because, once we find the ants, we can kill them.

S.A.     Why is the fire ant still on the march, still spreading in south-east Queensland, despite, what, a twelve-year program to eradicate them?

J.J.       It’s been a seventeen-year program and it’s been a program, for the last number of years, of containment. And I think the important message around that containment is, if the program wasn’t in existence, by now, they would have moved as far south as Sydney and as far north as Mackay. That program has allowed the Australian community to be in a position where can still have a manageable scale of infestation and with that scale we can move to eradicate with the ten-year plan.

S.A.     I know it’s been a busy day for you, so I’m grateful you came on. John Jordan, thank you.

J.J.       You’re welcome.

S.A.     John Jordan, General Manager of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program in Biosecurity.

S.A.     Dr Pam Swepson is an organisational psychologist. She’s worked for a quarter of a century in public and private sectors. You may recall she was a whistle-blower, although wasn’t able to get proper whistle-blower status after CCC (Crime and Corruption Commission) looked at her matter involving her concerns about the program.

S.A      Pam Swepson, what’s your belief on why the fire ant is still on the march despite SEVENTEEN years of containment and eradication attempts?

P.S.     Well, I think we need to go back to the beginning of the program, Steve, when there was never any scientific evidence that eradication was possible.  We always needed to have a tight containment program. As I’ve mentioned to you before, Queensland pitched for an eradication program so that Queensland would get that money. So Queensland’s  benefited with about $350m, putting in 10% of the funding itself, and making 100% of the decisions for the benefit of Queensland. So, instead of a tight containment program, we’ve had this chase after the fire ant nests. And this nest that’s turned up in Oxley is one of many.  I mean people contact me via my website and I’ve had reports of, and I’ve blogged recently, of fire ant nests: large fire ant nests popping up in Browns Plains. And Browns Plains has been part of the infestation area since 2001:  the same as Oxley, sorry as Rockea. And I’ve had reports of ants popping up in Oxley. So, there are large infestations in areas that have been part of Biosecurity zones since 2001, which is evidence that nothing has changed. Repeated baiting in those, what would have been Ground Zero of the infestation in the south-west. I mean, they were found in Richlands, in that south-west part of Brisbane. That area has been repeatedly baited. It’s Ground Zero of that infestation, if you like, many treatments, and nothing has changed. I mean this business about suppression; they’ve had numerous treatments. Numerous independent reviews have said there’s no evidence that the treatment works because fire ants keep reinfesting areas that have been fully treated.

So, this nest in Oxley, is just more evidence that Biosecurity Queensland treatment regime does not work.

S.A.     John told me they could have rafted in. In other words, they could come back in on a log or a stick or twig or something.

P.S.     That’s possible and it’s also possible that they just weren’t killed in the first place.

S.A.     Right. OK. He said it wasn’t unexpected. Which surprised me. ‘NOT unexpected’ was his phrase.

P.S (laughs).   But he doesn’t know how many there are…and there’s a lot.

S.A.     One of seventeen on Oxley Creek, he says. So, he doesn’t know how many there are at the moment.

P.S.     And these are the ones they’re reporting. There’s a lot of nests. There’s a number of sites in Oxley itself that are still infested. People send me photographs of nests that are still in Oxley.

And this business about them not being tagged. I mean they get tagged and mowing contractors have been mowing over them because Biosecurity Queensland leaves them untreated for so long. And that just spreads them as well.

S.A.     How could it be done better, in your opinion, Dr Swepson.

P.S.     Well, for a start, it should never have been an eradication program. It should have been a containment program. But this new ten year plan that they’re going to spend another $411m of public money on, after having wasted $400m. This business about starting at the west and rolling a treatment program through to the east, means, for a start, they don’t know where the western edge is. The Work Plan shows where they’re starting out Laidley way and rolling the treatment through to the east. But they don’t know where the western edge is, because fire ants keep popping up beyond the operational areas. So, they don’t know where the western edge is, for a start. And while they’re focussing the aerial baiting from the west, they’re leaving the original, high density infestation, in south-west Brisbane, and down at the Gold Coast, basically, unattended. Just responding when people report something.

S.A.     Now John Jordan told me that if they hadn’t done this program, these things would have been to Sydney by now.

P.S.     That’s a lot of rubbish.

S.A.     Why? That’s a strong statement. Why is it rubbish?

P.S.     It is a strong statement because the program has no evidence of its performance. You can’t make that prediction if you don’t know the actual effect this program has had. Every review of the program: five science reviews, three audits, the Capability review and the Queensland Audit Office all say the program does not collect reliable performance data. So, without that data, you can’t make any claims about what it’s been able to achieve. And you certainly can’t make claims that it stopped the ants from getting to Sydney and to Mackey. That’s untenable.

S.A.     Just state the names of those three departments again that say the program does not keep reliable performance data.

P.S.     The Queensland Audit Office did one last year, in March last year. There was a Queensland Biosecurity Capability review done, in about 2015, I think. Deloitte audited the program in 2003, 2006 and 2013. All of the scientific reviews: 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2016, all said the program doesn’t collect reliable and consistent performance data.

S.A.     Alright. I’ll speak to you again when we find another new nest inside the secure zone, I guess. 

P.S.     And that’s the thing. I mean, they’re not marked. People are at risk. These nests that are left unmarked. Putting a GPS on it is one thing, but people don’t know that it’s there. Its putting public safety at risk!

S.A.     This is families that might take their kids …

P.S.     That’s right. It’s in a public park. That’s why this person got in touch with me. This nest was in a public park, and he knew it was a fire ant nest and its unmarked and its putting people’s safety at risk.

S.A.     Thanks for coming on.

P.S.     Thanks Steve.

S.A.     Dr Pam Swepson. Used to be a senior policy officer in the Department, became a whistle-blower, went to the CCC (Crime and Corruption Commission) they said you’re not a whistle-blower: you’re on your own. And didn’t support her findings, by the way. But speaking there, these days, she’s been tracking the ups and downs of the fire ant program.