Friday, 31 May 2013

Bacterial infection ‘linked to dredging’

by John Mikkelsen
First published at the  
Queensland Telegraph 
 EVIDENCE of a likely link between serious bacterial infections and contaminated dredge spoil in Gladstone Harbour has been presented to a Senate select committee by an environmental medicine specialist previously employed by a major resource company.

Dr Andrew Jeremijenko told the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee last week he knew of three cases of the rare shewenella bacteria infecting Gladstone fishermen. He said this was normally associated with heavy metals and it was “extremely rare” to find a cluster of three cases.

A patient of his had been on the verge of having a leg amputated  when the infection was finally diagnosed after 12 months. Before that, doctors had been unable to find the cause or effective treatment.

Gladstone patient left leg & foot

“This person was written off as an undiagnosed case—just a swollen leg. It took a year to find out what he had. A friend of his also had shewenella, so we have had a number of cases,” Dr Jeremijenko said.

He said he knew of another case in Gladstone he was not involved with, where the patient did lose a leg. “In that case it was a vibrio infection."

"The study by the (State) government is a fairly superficial one. In my view it did not follow up these patients for long enough,” Dr Jeremijenko said.

His Gladstone patient was a shark fisherman. “He chops off shark fins for a living, then he pushes the body of the shark away and wraps up the fins and sends them to Asia.
“The shark has had all that disease on it. The juice was falling on to his left leg, which is the leg that got infected….

The other case was a fisherman who got it from washing his boat out. He had to go down into the water to adjust the pump and got the infection there.”

Dr Jerimijenko said the bacteria was more often seen in ‘boat people’ refugees, where there were dead fish and ‘hot water’ at the bottom of the boats.

He told the committee the bacteria was also found in “a lot of the sick fish in Gladstone Harbour”.
“Shewenella is very interesting because it is associated with heavy metals.

In fact, if you have a site contaminated with heavy metals, an anaerobic environment, it can chew up the metal and clean up the site.

“I think that what has happened in this case is that the dredging has pulled up all these bacteria along with the metals that we see in the dredge spoil. It has made the shewenella bio-available and that has caused the infection in these people…. It is extremely rare to have a cluster of three cases…. you would need more cases than that to call it statistically significant—but it is certainly an aberration that needs to be investigated,” Dr Jeremijenko said.

The Senate committee has been gathering evidence from a number of scientists and other interested groups to report on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Great Barrier Reef) Bill 2013.

Dr Jeremijenko said he was previously employed as Chief Medical Officer for Woodside, a major resource company, and had worked closely with them for years on improving health in the Pilbara. The company he now runs, TeleDoctor, has for three years supported QGC and Origin Energy (which are involved in the multi-billion dollar coal seam gas and LNG industries in Central Queensland).

“We have done dredging in Woodside for many years to open that harbour, but we have not seen infections like this (at Gladstone).
“There are ways to do dredging safely. You can use things like silt curtains. You can use closed containment systems. You can now suck out the spoil from underneath the top area and that can protect you from having all the tides washing up the turbidity… but they cost more money.”

With Abbot Point (near Bowen), they said that they looked at onshore disposal, which is the preferred method for acid sulphate soils, and they found that it was too expensive; it was economically prohibitive,” Dr Jeremijkenko said.



  1. Dr Jeremijenko also makes the point that the effect on our multi-billion dollar tourism industry would be devastating if a visiting foreign tourist picked up such an infection from contaminated waters entering the GBR lagoon by way of dumped dredge spoil. Of course, the authorities would just continue to deny any link.

  2. The effect on the tourism industry could be huge if an overseas visitor gets this infection. Especially when the Whitsundays is just 50km's away from Abbotts Point. What I can see is the dredging spoil is just going to be dumped in the GBR lagoon with little or no study on what ocean currents are doing. A cyclone coming through could easily stir it up again spreading it far and wide.

  3. True Bluegroper and we know what ocean currents are doing out from Gladstone. There is a radar array at Tannum Sands which maps currents in a triangulation pattern in tandem with another array at Lady Elliot Island at the southern end of the Reef and taking in Reef waters out past Heron Island. The current maps on outgoing tides show a large circulat motion extending well out into the Reef Lagoon as well as to the north along the eastern side of Facing Island. You can find them on IMOS/ ACORN (Australian Current Ocean Radar) websites.

  4. Just had a phone call from the fisherman involved in this report ... ' That's my leg in the photo you wrote about..' Poor fellow has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in his sharkfin and associated seafood businesses, his leg is still swollen but much better than it was in the photo taken about Christmas time. He said the surface temperature of his leg then was 40 degreesC - "it was like a microwave cooking my leg from the inside out.." The pain was terrible. It was only finally diagnosed after it started to ooze "a yellow oily liquid" and a biopsy was done on that.
    He thanked me for bringing the matter to the public and urged me to keep reporting these issues which were being swept under the carpet. Anyone listening to him speak and hearing the anguish in his voice could not help being moved. Turns out I knew him and his wife years ago. She also now has a suspected similar infection.

  5. Good to hear that he is on the mend. I hope the infection that his wife has got is pulled up long before it gets to the stage in the photo above.

    It's the fishermen who are the most forgotten in the Gladstone harbour fiasco; no matter of how great the potential benefits are to the economy, there is no justification of impacting people to this extent without compensation.


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