Recent water studies undertaken by Southern Cross University on behalf of Coffs Council have revealed record-breaking levels of agricultural chemicals in our water. What could be more alarming than that? Key reporting on the studies appears to have been mysteriously scrubbed from some of the paper's online search results, based on our investigations.
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed we're in the early stages of updating our community research page. As part of the first stage of this process, we've been reviewing media coverage of the issues over the last decade.
So far we've read and listed a full 95 articles of interest going back to 2009.
(Even just skimming the headlines in chronological order gives you a sense of the issues: from bananas disappearing and triggerring run-off concerns in 2009, to community flare-ups around netting in 2014, right through to increased examples of labor abuse, chemical dumping, and concerning water quality studies through to the present day.)
While undertaking this process a very odd fact emerged. 91 of those articles can be found through the paper's online search tool, while 4 cannot.
The four articles all relate to Southern Cross University's damning water quality studies. What follows are the listings from our research page:
- 15/09/2018 - Farms 'regulated heavily' - ⚠️ This article has 'disappeared' from Coffs Advocate search? Includes Gurmesh Singh's response to the Hearnes Lake and Bucca Creek studies.
- 08/09/2018 - FEARS OF Farming FALLOUT - ⚠️ This article has 'disappeared' from Coffs Advocate search? Reports on council's water studies.
- 08/09/2018 - Results Ringing Alarm Bells - ⚠️ This article has 'disappeared' from Coffs Advocate search? Reports on council's water studies.
- 23/05/2018 - Study Into Agricultural Impacts - ⚠️ This article has 'disappeared' from Coffs Advocate search? Reports on council's water studies.
Take 'FEARS OF Farming FALLOUT'. It reports in part (our emphasis):
ALARMING environmental research results have renewed calls for urgent reforms to the blueberry industry
Due to water quality concerns Coffs Harbour City Council commissioned the research, which has detected highly elevated levels of nutrients flowing into Hearnes Lake.
The study found levels of phosphorous, a component of fertiliser, had risen dramatically since the expansion of the industry on the Northern Beaches. It also found large volumes of nitrogen are carried from farms to local waterways and the ocean.
The levels found were some of the highest ever recorded on the east coast and are similar to results from heavily polluted estuaries overseas.
Don't worry about the last paragraph - we only emphasised it to highlight the environmental crisis happening right now on the Coffs Coast. (Yes, in our opinion it is a crisis).
Let's focus on two key parts: Hearnes Lake and phosphorous. Surely that's enough for a concerned citizen to discover this important reporting? Let's see...
Hmm. How about we roll up our sleeves and search using Google:
Success! It exists, but not to residents searching their local paper?
Next, let's try with Farms 'regulated heavily', which reports on the industry's response to the damning studies. Let's just go straight to Google:
Success! It exists but the online edition has a different title: "Is there too much red tape for our blueberry industry?".
Let's use those phrases to finally discover an article online via the Coffs Coast Advocate search:
Okay let's try one last thing. Each journalist has a tag where you can peruse all their recent articles, and 'FEARS OF farming FALLOUT' was written by Janine Watson on the 8th of September 2018. Let's have a look:
No luck. If everything was normal, we'd imagine it would be stuck in the middle of those two stories.
We won't bore you with further examples. Suffice to say our search skills go a little beyond the examples above, using shorter phrases, variations and even trawling through a huge number of articles. Maybe you'll have better luck than us? If you do, let us know at email@example.com.
In the meantime we're left with a puzzle.
How can only 4 articles, all related to the SCU studies, simply disappear from our local paper's search results?
If it's a legal issue: who asked them to take the reports down?
If it's a technical issue: what marvellous bad luck for curious citizens that these particular articles are the ones to largely disappear out of the 95 we've surveyed?
What we do know: it's a democratic issue. These studies speak to the heart of the scientific credibility which backs our community's rising concerns about water quality, and when citizens can't discover it through their local paper, we all lose.
Finally, enjoy some U2.
We still haven't found what we're looking for.
But we will.