Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing
Classification and licences to pollute
The response by the New South Wales government was to bring in the Clean Waters Act and to set up the State Pollution Control Commission (SPCC) and the Metropolitan Waste Disposal Authority (MWDA). However, since the government was careful to ensure that the legislation would ‘cause minimum hardship to industries and services which need to use areas of water for waste disposal’, the legislation did not aim to eliminate pollution but rather to keep it within controllable levels:
Each waterway was to be classified according to its use. Each classificatin would imply acceptable pollution levels for that waterway. Once a waterway was classified a polluter would require a licence to discharge waste into it. The licence would specify the nature, quality and quantity of waste that could be discharged. In other words, classification indicated how much a body of water could be polluted.
When the New South Wales Clean Waters Act and Regulations came into force at the end of 1972 six classifications for waterways were prescribed:
By 1979, however, classification was virtually abandoned. The SPCC claimed that the work of classification was labour-intensive and could not be continued in the face of staff cut-backs. Although the Georges River, Cooks River and Alexandra Canal were classified by this time, the Parramatta River, Botany Bay and Sydney Harbour remain unclassified. Why did the classification process have to be so labour-intensive? It would seem to be a simple matter to decide whether a waterway was being used for drinking water, whether people fished or swam in it, and so on. The fact was that classification depended not just on the use of the waterway but on whether the standards that a particular classification implied could be ‘realistically’ met by industrial and government polluters. So if the effluent of a sewage plant was going into a stream and there was nowhere else for it to go then the SPCC’s classification would allow for this. It was a distortion of the original spirit of the law—classifications were being worked out to suit existing polluters! Only those discharges that could be diverted to sewer, and therefore the ocean, or dealt with by some cheap treatment process were being eliminated from the rivers.
The classification for the waterways flowing into Sydney Harbour, including the Harbour itself, was presented to the Clean Waters Advisory Committee in 1978. It provided for the upstream part of the Parramatta River to be protected from gross pollution in recognition of the improved conditions of the river since many industrial discharges had been diverted to sewer. The rest of the river and most small watercourses draining into the estuarine waters of the Harbour were classified R (Restricted) to allow higher pollution levels. The draft report said:
Despite the compromise inherent in the report and although the Parramatta River had been publicly given priority in 1974, this classification scheme was never implemented and the area remains unclassified. Since, according to the report, the proposed classification was not going to seriously impact on private firms discharging into the waterways, one must assume that it was the Water Board which objected to the proposed classification because of their sewage overflows which would not have been able to meet some of the higher classifications in the upstream areas of the drainage basin. Similarly a proposed classification scheme for Botany Bay was never implemented.
It appears that the will of the SPCC was not enough to get these critical waters classified, although just what level the interference came from is not clear. Although classification allowed pollution to continue, it placed some restrictions on discharge and so was not in the interests of industry, nor developers, nor government authorities who needed to use the waterways for waste disposal. The main Sydney authority that uses the waterways in this manner, the Sydney Water Board, not only disposes of treated sewage but also uses the waterways as sewer overflow points during wet weather. In 1985, for example, it was suggested at a Clean Waters Advisory Commit- tee Meeting that the conditions for waters classified P (Protected) should be relaxed to permit the installation of sewer overflows, where necessary, in developing areas. It’s no wonder that the SPCC decided classification was a 1ow priority, irrelevant process. It was hamstrung from the start.
Today, the SPCC claims it still sets standards for the water quality to be achieved in each waterway. The problem is that the process is no longer public. The polluters can object to the terms of the licence, but there is no provision for the public know or object to the water quality standards that are being set for various waterways. Classification, despite its faults, was a public process. Each classification had to be proposed and publicly advertised before adoption. Any person was able to lodge an objection to the proposed classification and the objections were to be heard by a Clean Waters Appeals Board. As the classification process came to a halt the Appeals Board was dismantled. This means the SPCC is able to change the water quality criteria rapidly and without public consultation. Given the lack of independence of the SPCC from government, its effectiveness in pollution control depends very much on the policy priorities of the government in power.
If a private citizen complains about a polluter and the SPCC fails to act, the citizen requires the consent of the relevant minister or the director of the SPCC before they can institute legal proceedings. In 1981 a chemical operative at the Water Board’s West Hornsby treatment plant, Fritz Schroeder, became concerned that the Board was repeatedly exceeding its licence conditions. After trying without success through the more usual channels, he applied to the Minister for Planning and Environment for permission to take legal action against the Board. The Minister denied permission because the SPCC informed him: ‘I am advised that most, but certainly not a11 of the alleged breaches of the Clean Waters Act were technical breaches only which arose from the intrinsic variability of the treatment process . . . it is the wording of the licence which is at fault in that it appears to convey an immutability which is not entirely appropriate’ (9/6/82 - emphasis added).
This and similar cases demonstrate how the role of the public in pollution control has been severely limited. When the public is denied input into the legislative process, then levels of pollution that are determined to be ‘acceptable’ are based on judgements of public servants in negotiation with industry and government authorities. All the general public can do is agitate via the newspapers and protest actions, measures that have been resorted to more frequently in recent times.
Previously in this chapter
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