A GIPPSLAND farmer has vowed not to back down in his compensation fight with Gippsland Water after up to one million litres of sewage leaked onto his dairy farm on three separate occasions and contaminated stock and water sources.
The David and Goliath-style battle between Flynn dairy farmer Patrick Ferguson and Gippsland Water began in February last year, when Patrick and his father Bernie discovered raw sewage filling the stock water dam on his Princes Highway farm.
The Environment Protection Authority, Agriculture Victoria and Gippsland Water were notified, and the farm's 30 troughs and the dam were pumped, but it was too late to protect stock.
Adding to the Ferguson's woes, a second sewage spill - this time treated sewage occurred in another area of the farm six months later, and then in October, a third leak occurred after untreated sewage leaked from a faulty sewerage pipe valve.
About 800 cows were quarantined on the farm for two years, and the Department of Primary Industries has advised the Fergusons that part of the farm also has to be quarantined for 18 months.
Mr Ferguson estimates his losses for the first spill at around $80,000, and has rejected an offer of $15,000 as "unacceptable". He has accused Gippsland Water of hiding behind its insurer.
The 30-year-old farmer said he was dealing with "one spill at a time", and was demanding Gippsland Water or its insurer pay the interim claim for $81,000 for costs incurred until August 2016, before other claims were submitted for the subsequent spills.
"This amount has been fully quantified by an independent farm consultant," he said.
"We have been told that this was a conservative claim."
The Fergusons are also considering launching litigation, and would like to see "better communication" between the EPA, Gippsland Water, and Biosecurity Australia who enforced the quarantine rules so that a compromise can be reached over compensation and a quarantine waiver.
At the end of a tight financial year and low milk prices, the sewage leaks couldn't have come at a worse time for Patrick, who, as a 30-year-old new to farm ownership, has massive overheads.
The emotional costs of the incident have been considerable, with the stress affecting the health of both families.
The affected cows cannot be sold through saleyards and must have a permit before being slaughtered at an abattoir because of potential Beef Measles infection.
This restriction has greatly reduced the market for the animals, which can only be sold under the supervision of a government veterinarian at approved abattoirs where carcases can be examined.
Since the spills, Mr Ferguson has been forced to slaughter some of the milking herd and calves at reduced prices and in a limited market, or sell them off as “chopper cows”.
As a result, he has accrued significant expenses associated with their disposal, the quarantining of cattle, and administration.
The EPA is still investigating the case, and has not ruled out imposing penalties on Gippsland Water.
But that doesn’t help the Fergusons.
Mr Ferguson snr, who has mortgaged his own farm to help his son, said “the buck stops with Gippsland Water”, not their insurance company or a “bloody-minded legal firm”.
He said the contamination presented biosecurity problems, which should have raised concerns for the government.
“The contamination of cattle really presents a whole lot of issues for Australia, and should be given high priority,” he said.
The Fergusons are likely to be in for a long fight, with the EPA still investigating, and Gippsland Water taking a cautious approach.
Gippsland Water managing director Sarah Cumming said the authority remained “committed towards ensuring Mr Ferguson is fairly compensated and has expressed this position to its insurer”.
She said Gippsland Water encouraged Mr Ferguson to continue to “work cooperatively with the insurer to achieve a resolution”.
An EPA spokesman said officers had met with both parties and had requested a full incident report and review of the initial information against the EPA sewer spill reporting protocol.
A review of the matter is expected to be concluded by Friday, June 23.