New details emerge after 152 koalas killed on private property: 'Unacceptable'

Koalas have become increasingly sick from a disease identified at the site in 2010.

“Embarrassing” is how the Victorian government’s approach to koala management has been described after a population living across a contaminated plantation became so sick over 150 animals were euthanised. Others determined to be in acceptable health were released back into the same forest.

Concerns about the government's handling of the situation at an industrial site in Portland were raised in parliament by Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell. Since then her team have been inundated with questions about the koalas' welfare from Australia and overseas.

"Killing over 150 koalas cannot be considered appropriate management as they say it is. The Victorian public simply won't accept it," Ms Purcell told Yahoo News Australia. "That is why they are so desperate to cover up what is going on... and why it has been so difficult to get any answers or outcomes about the koalas."

The severity of the problem was revealed in May, when US industrial-giant Alcoa confirmed it euthanised 152 of 348 koalas health-checked between 2019 and 2023. The animals had been living in eucalyptus trees next to its aluminium smelter and many were suffering from a bone disease called fluorosis.

An aerial shot of the the Portland aluminium smelter.
152 koalas were euthanised due to poor health in land adjacent to Alcoa's Portland aluminium smelter. Source: Supplied

“The assessments continue to show the health status of the population is poor. About 60 per cent of koalas assessed over the last two years have had to be euthanised due to health impacts associated with both overpopulation and exposure to fluoride emissions,” Alcoa told Yahoo at the time.

Fluorosis is a disease that causes bone deformities and malnutrition. It has been linked to fluoride emissions created during the production of aluminium. The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) told ABC the disease was affecting kangaroos near the smelter in 2010 and The Age reported 49 roos were culled because they were suffering life-threatening deformities.

Government subcontracted koala health check jobs

In June 2022 and March this year, Alcoa refused to disclose details of the koala health checks conducted in Portland. “We do not see value in releasing detailed figures or results from individual health assessments,” it said in a statement.

Working to understand trends in koala health at the site, Yahoo then filed a Freedom of Information request with the state government, asking it to provide any results reported to it since April 2022.

Documents released under the FOI in June show Zoos Victoria provided vets for the assessments, but subcontracted some of the work to a private wildlife management company, and additional logistical support including transport of koalas was provided by staff from the aluminium smelter.

Why is a US company managing koalas?

In NSW, Queensland and ACT koalas are federally listed as endangered, however they do not receive the same protection in Victoria where they are believed to be abundant.

Under state law, the responsibility of managing wildlife on private property falls on owners, and applications to do so are assessed by the Conservation Regulator, an arm of the Department of Environment (DEECA).

Alcoa appears to have complied with state regulatory requirements and followed independent expert advice to euthanise sick koalas, however questions have been raised as to why the government allowed the increasingly unwell population to remain at the contaminated site.

Georgie Purcell speaking in parliament.
Georgie Purcell raised the euthanasia of the koalas in state parliament. Source: Parliament of Victoria

Ms Purcell accused the government of “passing the buck” on their responsibility to protect the state’s wildlife. “Frankly, it is unacceptable and quite embarrassing,” she said. “Not only do we have a minister in Victoria that is directly responsible for the welfare of our native animals, but we also have an entire government department, and they are outsourcing (koala management) to an American company.”

Alcoa told government koala population unwell

Documents from April 2022 showing the outcome of one health check reveal the Conservation Regulator was told 61 per cent of koalas checked were euthanised to "prevent suffering" and 16 females were given birth control and released back into the same contaminated site. None were given rehabilitation.

In February 2023, 60 per cent were euthanised, 13 were given birth control and released, and two dependent young were sent to a wildlife shelter for care.

Left - a koala in a tree. Right - the land owned by Alcoa where the koalas live.
Private property managed by Alcoa was closed to the public while the health assessments were completed. Source: Supplied

Yahoo sent a series of questions to the offices of Environment Minister Ingrid Stitt and DEECA, however neither provided a comment. Questions were redirected and a Victorian government spokesperson issued a statement on June 7.

"Across Victoria, we're taking action to ensure the long-term protection and survival of koalas. In some areas, this means land managers will undertake regular health assessments to manage populations,” the spokesperson said.

“Alcoa has a permit from the Conservation Regulator to allow koalas in the proximity of Alcoa's Portland smelter to be health assessed and appropriately managed based on health outcomes. The permit includes strict protocols and procedures to ensure koala welfare is prioritised throughout the program as well are reporting obligations to the (Conservation Regulator).”

Alcoa plans to relocate koala population

Monitoring emissions at the site falls under the jurisdiction of the EPA. Yahoo understands the agency is aware of community concerns about the health of koalas at the site. It is working with DEECA and Alcoa to ensure all regulatory obligations are being met. So far, Alcoa has been found to be complying with the emissions limits and monitoring that it is required to adhere to.

The EPA is believed to have requested more information from Alcoa and it will consider whether regulatory action is needed to further reduce the effect of fluoride emissions on koalas around the site.

However, Alcoa plans to gradually remove the 17-hectare plantation where a population of 120 surviving koalas remains. It has planted 16,000 eucalyptus trees on 14 hectares which will form part of a 77-hectare parcel of habitat that it hopes the animals will relocate to.

“Our priority is to gradually remove the plantation closest to the smelter to reduce exposure to fluoride emissions while also giving koalas the opportunity to relocate,” Alcoa said in May.

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