Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing
Sydney Water Board’s ‘self-monitoring’ system
Sydney Water Board has been monitoring itself for years. The licence conditions for the main ocean outfalls specify what monitoring must be carried out. For example, the Board has to take five samples of bathing waters over a 30-day period. But these samples can be taken on days of their choosing, such as when an offshore wind is blowing, so that results will be good. And readings are done during the day, whilst sludge is dumped at night. The main irony is that the results of this monitoring do not have to meet legally enforceable standards outside of what is specifed in the licences—which is very little.
The SPCC publishes guidelines for bathing water standards—WP-l Design Criteria for Ocean Discharge—but these have no legal force and are merely published criteria for approval of new works. The WP-1 guidelines, drawn up by the SPCC engineers, and the licences they issue for ocean outfalls, are supposed to reflect the standards set down in the Clean Waters Regulations. The regulations for ‘Class O’ (Ocean Outfall Waters) forbid settleable matter, limit the pH value of discharges and the grease, oi1 and solids that can be seen. However, neither the licences nor the WP-1 guidelines specify these conditions.
The Clean Waters Regulations also state that wastes are not to be discharged into ocean waters if they will adversely affect beaches. The WP-1 guidelines translate this very commendable aim into specific levels of faecal coliform concentrations. Faecal coliforms are organisms that occur naturally in human and animal guts. They are usually harmless. Conveniently for the Water Board, the faecal coliform standards in WP-1 are relaxed in the winter. According to the Board’s own predictions, the proposed extended outfalls will cause more pollution in the winter time.
Moreover, use of faecal coliforms as bacteriological indicators is generally acknowledged to be inadequate anyway. In 1970 Lionel Bowen, whose electorate covered the Malabar outfall, told Parliament that coliform tests were archaic. He quoted from a Canadian paper: ‘The survival of colibacteria does not necessarily mirror the survival of many pathogenic organisms and viruses. For example, a polio virus type can survive from 6 to 9 days in sea waters . . .’ (House of Representatives, 21/5/70). It was not till 1979 that the SPCC came to the same conclusion. An SPCC report published in 1979, on ‘Hea1th Aspects of Faecal Contamination’, pointed out that 90 per cent of faecal coliforms died within 9 hours whereas many viruses survived in the sea for between 2 days and 130 days. The report concluded that faecal coliforms were inadequate as an indicator of pathogens (disease-causing organisms) because they only indicated recent contamination. Their absence would not mean an absence of pathogens, particularly viruses. The SPCC noted that the earliest water quality standards for bacteria were ‘based mostly on engineering feasibility rather than epidemiological and scientific data’, and yet these were accepted worldwide. This seems to be still the case.
Furthermore, the faecal coliform standards specified in WP-1 are quite different from those used by the Hea1th Department to test whether water is safe for swimming. The Hea1th Department takes three samples from a bathing location at one time but the Water Board is only required to take one sample every six days and it uses a geometric mean of five different sampling days. (The geometric mean ends up being much smaller than the average and covers up high concentrations of faecal coliform.) This mean should not exceed 200 faecal coliform/100 ml in summertime and 1000 in winter. The monitoring results of the two authorities therefore differ considerably, as shown in Table 2.1, with the Board's method enabling it to cover up numerous instances of polluted water.
Table 2.l Differences between the Water Board and Department of Health beach pollution monitoring results—summer 1988-89
lnformation from: Memo to Town Clerk from Municipal Health Surveyor. Waverley Municipal officer, 20/3/89.
Health Department and Water Board monitoring of the same beaches over the same time period give very different pictures of how clean those beaches were. Whereas the Health Department found that Waverley beaches were unsatisfactory for swimming for a large proportion of the time, the Water Board found the same beaches were clean all the time. This is largely because the Board is permitted by the State Pollution Control Commission to take a geometric mean of five samples collected each month. The geometric mean conveniently hides occurrences of high concentrations of faecal coliform.
The Clean Waters Regulations state that wastes are not to be discharged if the result is likely to be harmful to aquatic life or wildlife or give rise to abnormal concentrations of toxic waste in marine life or abnormal plant or animal growth. Yet until May 1989 there were no conditions in the outfall licences that
marine life should even be monitored or toxic wastes re- stricted. The WP-I guidelines include a table of allowable re- stricted substances. These allowable levels are worked out in the absence of any scientiâc work on the eFects of these sub- stances in Sydney's marine waters. The few studies of marine life that have been done show that the level of restrictions stated in the guidelines do not provide the protection that the legislation reqpires (see chapter 3, pp. 43-57). The actual amounts of toxic chemicals allowed through the outfalls by the SPCC WP- 1 guidelines is enormous and acts as no brake at al1 on industry's use of the sewers for dumping of toxic wastes. Table 2.2 shows what will be allowed through the Malabar outfall each year when the new extended outfall is built.
Table 2.2 Annual amounts of toxic substances allowed by the SPCC into the sea at Malabar when the new outfalls are built*
* Assuming the outfalls achieve the expected 150:1 dilution at a radius of 500 metres from the outlet
The SPCC design criferia for ocean outfalls have the potential to allow huge quantities of heavy metals and toxic chemicals to be discharged into the oceon by the Sydney Water Board. Because these quantities are so large, larger than what is generated in some cases, the SPCC standards do not provide any real limitation on what is discharged into the ocean.
The lack of consistency between the WP-I guidelines, the licences and the Clean Waters legislation shows how the bureaucrats are able to remove themselves from the legislative process, which is supposed to reflect the public will. The weakness of the SPCC with respect to the Board was made manifest in 1979 by an internal report, which observed that the SPCC was unable to get essential information from the Board. The report stated:
In 1987 the SPCC tried to revise WP-I to provide improved guidelines for new sewerage treatment works throughout the State, ones that take account of increased community expectations and environmental concerns. The SPCC argued that the revision was necessary because ocean outfalls were being proposed by other New South Wales sewerage authorities, because the community was no longer happy with looser standards for winter: and because ‘The criteria apply to industrial as well as municipal discharges. The schedule of restricted substances has been publicly criticised by environmental groups and is now so outdated that it cannot be scientifically justified.’
But the move was blocked by the Sydney Water Board. They objected to the new guidelines, even though they didn't affect the Board's existing or proposed extended outfalls and were meant merely as guidelines for new applicants for licences. The Board’s representative on the Clean Waters Advisory Committee said that the Board would have trouble meeting the new guidelines with their proposed extended ocean outfalls. The Board would have problems with the aesthetic criteria, the removal of settleable matter, the protection of inshore waters and levels of restricted substances. He didn’t want the guidelines to be published till after the commissioning of those outfalls in the 1990s. Even though the Board would not have to meet the guidelines, he said, the public would use them to reopen debate about the submarine outfalls and agitate for more treatment to be installed. In other words, it would have been bad for the Board's public relations.
The representative of the Public Works Department, which is responsible for sewage treatment works throughout the State, also argued against the new guidelines. He was afraid there would be public pressure to have existing outfalls altered to meet the new guidelines. He also said the section on restricted substances should be omitted. With such a degree of opposition, the SPCC was unable to introduce the new guidelines.
Although such conflict between the Water Board and the SPCC is fairly rare (because both organisations employ engineers with similar attitudes) this incident shows the extent of the power of government polluters in that they are able to block the SPCC because its actions might be bad for public relations. The old standards continue to be applied to new ocean outfalls and industrial polluters throughout the State because of the power of Sydney-based polluters.
contents page is at http://www.herinst.org/sbeder/Books/toxicfish.html