The Press Council has considered a complaint from Allan House concerning an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 25 February 2014 about Waratah Rivulet. The print heading was “Reservoir source dries up: longwall coalmining gets blame”. The online heading was “Woronora reservoir source dries up: longwall coalmining gets blame”.
The article stated that coalmining under “an important feeder pool” to Sydney’s water catchment had “triggered extensive iron contamination”. It said: “The mine’s 2012 annual report found that iron concentrations in the rivulet had doubled since the expansion of the mine, to levels which exceeded Australian Drinking Water Guidelines by 30 per cent.” It also said: “the health of part of the water supply to Sydney’s 4.6 million consumers” was “at stake”.
The complainant said the word “contamination” was misleading because the article said iron levels in the rivulet were 0.39mg/l but the Guidelines say that although natural iron levels in water are usually less than 1mg/l they may be up to 100mg/l. He said the level of 0.39mg/l was within the site specific standard specified for the Woronora Reservoir. He said the Guidelines did not set any health related level and although the Guidelines specified an aesthetic level for filtered drinking water of 0.3mg/l this did not apply to water in the rivulet. He also said the article inaccurately and unfairly raised alarm that people’s health was at risk.
The publication said that after mine expansion began the average iron level in the rivulet rose from 0.18 mg/l to 0.40 mg/l, and the latter figure is within the ordinary meaning of “contamination”. It said the increase was also a “detrimental change”, which is the term used by the Planning Assessment Commission and the Sydney Catchment Authority to define “contamination”. It said the Guidelines recommend a limit of 0.3 mg/l for human health reasons, which shows the increase to 0.39mg/l was significant. It said the reference to health related to the river system, not directly to human health.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced, and are not deliberately misleading.
The Council considers that the article was inaccurate and unfair in suggesting the iron levels posed a risk to the health of consumers. The article should have made it clear that the level exceeded in the rivulet was an aesthetic standard which only applied to filtered water and was not a health-related standard. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
The Council considers that use of the term “contamination” might have been accurate in a technical sense but it was likely to be misunderstood by many readers. Nevertheless, the Council has concluded, on balance, that in this instance the breach of its Standards was not sufficiently significant for this aspect of the complaint to be upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission.” (This wording has subsequently been revised with effect for publications from 1 August 2014.)