Media: Former govt employee Pam Swepson says fire ants out of control in Redland development areas

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Cheryl Goodenough Redland City Bulletin 8th May 2019

AN ADVOCATE for changes to the government’s fire ant program says that Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated its responsibility to control the movement of fire ants, putting the safety of residents of new housing estates at risk.

 The dreaded fire ants cost the United States $US7 billion a year in medical and control costs. The ants are spreading in Redland development areas where soil and plants are being shifted around.
Pam Swepson – who worked for the government’s fire ant program as a community engagement officer about 15 years ago – said fire ants were out of control in the Redlands because the area was abandoned under the government’s $411.4 million 10-year fire ant eradication program.

However a Biosecurity Queensland spokesperson said that Ms Swepson’s repeated claims about the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program had been independently investigated and always found to be baseless.

“Ms Swepson was only employed by the fire ant program from 2001-03 and not in a senior managerial role,” the spokesperson said.

“She has not worked for the fire ant response for more than 15 years. She is not a fire ant expert and she does not have whistle blower status.”

Ms Swepson was responding to Agriculture Industry Development Minister Mark Furner who said that an increase in fire ant colonies in the Redlands was due to significant urban development in suburbs like Mount Cotton and Redland Bay.

Ms Swepson said Biosecurity Queensland had abrogated its responsibility to control the movement of fire ant carriers like soil and mulch from infested areas to clean areas.

“The focus on the new 10-year eradication program was on the western edge of the infestation in the Lockyer Valley, 100 kilometres west of Redlands,” Ms Swepson said. 

“Persistent infestations east of there were targeted for spot treatments. 

“Biosecurity Queensland abandoned spot treatments in the east after just six months in 2017-18 because they had been swamped by 6700 reports from the public and had injected 21,500 nests already.”

The Biosecurity Queensland spokesperson said that Redlands was treated like everywhere else.

“High risk infestations that present either a public safety risk or spread risk are treated through direct nest injection within a few days,” the spokesperson said. 

“Lower risk infestations can take up to 12 weeks to be treated by DNI.”

The spokesperson said that in 2017-18 the program had treated more than 21,000 individual nests across south-east Queensland and received more than 6750 reports from the public. 

“The fire ant program has actively engaged and educated the public so that nests can be reported and dealt with as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said. 

“These figures reflect that increased level of public awareness and engagement.”

Ms Swepson said the main cause of fire ant spread was that the ants were taken in truck or trailer loads of fire ant-friendly materials like soil, turf, mulch, baled hay or straw, animal manures, mining or quarry products, composts and potted plants from infested areas into clean areas.

“Biosecurity Queensland dumped the responsibility to contain the spread of fire ants onto the public with a General Biosecurity Obligation. 

“This means people and organisations living or working in fire ant biosecurity zones have a legal responsible to take all reasonable precautions to ensure they don’t spread fire ants, making the public responsible for ensuring they do not buy-in or bring fire ant infested materials onto their properties,” Dr Swepson said.

She said a team of biosecurity inspectors – who identified potential high risks, helped develop and audited risk management plans and prosecuted those who breached fire ant containment regulations – had been disbanded.

Ms Swepson said 80 per cent of new fire ant infestations were made by the public but there were complaints that it took Biosecurity Queensland months to respond to reports.

She said this forced people to try to treat nests themselves, risking getting stung and causing the nest to split and spread.

“For the same reasons, fire ants now infest dozens of new housing estates inside Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone, on the Gold Coast, in Logan and Ipswich cities, in the Moreton Bay region, on the Sunshine Coast, in Lowood in the Somerset region and Beaudesert in the Scenic Rim region,” Ms Swepson said.

The Biosecurity Queensland spokesperson said the government was in the second year of a 10-year eradication program involving an intensive baiting and nest destruction effort.

“The program is governed by an independent steering committee and is reviewed at least every two years,” the spokesperson said.

“Since 2001, it has been intensely scrutinised by national cost-sharing partners.

“Australia is closer to eradicating fire ants than anywhere else that is infested. 

“If left uncontained, we face similar impacts as the US which spends an estimated $US7 billion annually on medical costs and control measures.”

Reports, maps of fire ant detections and communication from the steering committee are available at