Hundreds of Queenslanders living in a small town 1800km from Brisbane have potentially been consuming uranium in their water for decades.
While the 2011 census estimated 429 people lived in Dajarra, 150km south of Mt Isa, locals now estimate the population hovers between 70 and 90.
Once, it was the largest trucking depot in the world, processing thousands of heads of cattle a day from as far away as Western Australia. Now, many of the town’s homes are described as “unliveable”, half-eaten by white ants.
The town still operates on 3G, does not have a reliable power supply, and for months the residents have relied on a daily delivery of 120,000 litres of water from Mt Isa, after unsafe levels of uranium were found in the tap water.
When Cloncurry Shire Council first carried out testing in January 2021, four of council’s five bores supplying water to the town of Dajarra recorded uranium in levels significantly above the Australian drinking water guidelines threshold of 0.017mg/L.
Raw water at sites one and two had readings of 0.046mg/L, site three had a reading of 0.023mg/L, and site five a reading of 0.045mg/L.
According to a Queensland Health fact sheet issued to residents, uranium could cause “inflammation or kidney damage, particularly following exposures at high levels”.
The town has never had potable water, with residents instead buying bottled water, or boiling water out of either privately owned or council-owned bores before consumption.
While a treatment plant bought last year is designed to be effective in removing naturally occurring uranium from the raw water supply, continuing issues with the power supply to Dajarra and unexpectedly high water usage, believed to be caused by a leak, meant the plant could not meet the needs of the community.
Federal MP Bob Katter said Dajarra’s water issues were an example of small-town Australia “falling to pieces”.
“This is the emptying of middle Australia … No one could care less whether the water supply has gone out. That’s the microcosm of what is happening in all these towns across Australia,” he said.
The council spent the months after the concerning test results conducting inspections and maintenance on the treatment plant, and Cloncurry Shire Council’s new chief executive officer Philip Keirle said the most recent results suggested the plant achieved the “fully effective removal of uranium from the treated water supply”.
But Mr Katter questioned how long residents had been unknowingly exposed to uranium.
“Uranium doesn’t suddenly jump into your water supply … Either it’s been there all along and they haven’t picked it up, or their current advice is wrong,” Mr Katter said.
“These boreholes have been there for 20, 30 … maybe even 50 years. You don’t just suddenly get uranium contamination.
“We don’t know whether they have been incompetent before, or they’re being incompetent now, but it’s scary. Water is supposed to be monitored all the time.
“We are not in a third-world country … Why is Dajarra being treated like it is?”
Publican Richard “Rhino” Ryan said the town he had called home for 15 years was similar to “our old people in homes”.
“They’re sitting there waiting to die … That’s like Dajarra,” he said.
“There’s uranium in our water, they reacted but they aren’t proactive. They (council) wait until we whinge then they come in.
“I’d say the uranium has been there all along and we just haven’t been aware of it.
“Every time we make a complaint and say the water isn’t good enough, or something’s not working, they basically let us know that Dajarra costs them $1 million a year with very little return.”
Mr Ryan, who said he loved his “beautiful town”, questioned at what point the council stopped spending money on a town they were losing so much money on.
“Since 1987, the council has been running at a 900 per cent loss. They’re saying Dajarra costs them a million a year to run, and they get back less than $10,000 a year in rates,” Mr Ryan said.
“When does it become a point where council says, ‘Well, hang on … are we better off spending $1 million a year in the town of Cloncurry, and reallocating the 70 people to a place with more facilities, a better structure and lifestyle where they get more rates?’
“You can’t keep throwing money at nothing.”
Mr Keirle said council was committed to providing “efficient and effective services to Dajarra”, but that they had to be realistic.
“It’s always been understood that the water is bore water, it’s not potable water … That’s been the status quo for many years,” Mr Keirle said.
“Every drinking water supply scheme in Australia is required to do some form of treatment to the raw water supply, whether it’s sourced from rivers, bores or dams. It’s natural that the raw water supply will have various items that make it unfit for human consumption without some form of treatment.
“It just so happens one of the naturally occurring items that needs treating in Dajarra are low levels of uranium … low enough a simple reverse osmosis treatment plant is able to easily bring these above the ADWG thresholds.
“But for a water treatment system to work effectively, it needs a reliable power supply … And that is one thing Dajarra does not have.”
According to an Ergon Energy spokesman, Dajarra has experienced 19 power outages of “varying duration” since January 1, 2021.
“Ergon is currently working to repair damage to the network’s back-up generator in Dajarra,” the spokesman said.
“Ergon understands the council has installed stand-alone generators at their water plants.”
While council will continue to advise Dajarra residents not to drink the town’s bore water, as has been the “status quo” for decades, Mr Keirle is hopeful he can eventually transition the town onto the Australian drinking water supply scheme.