Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing
International legislation – the London Dumping Convention
The Federal Government has argued that it is powerless to intervene in Sydney’s sewage pollution crisis because it is a State matter, yet it does have power to ensure that international agreements that Australia has made with other countries are adhered to. One such agreement is the London Dumping Convention which Australia signed in 1972.
The London Convention on Dumping prohibits the dumping of substances such as organohalogen compounds (which include organochlorine pesticides), mercury and cadmium and requires special permits for wastes containing substances such as arsenic, lead, copper, zinc, cyanides, fluorides, nickel .and chromium and their compounds. Other wastes require general permits. Permits must consider the impact the wastes will have and the aspects which must be considered are specified.
The prohibition of dumping of wastes such as mercury is regardless of the need for a disposal method or the cost of alternative disposal methods. These prohibited substances are not allowed to be discharged into the ocean, even in 1ow concentrations, if it would cause undesirable effects on marine organisms or human health, or if it is practical to reduce the concentration further by technical means. Sewage sludge dumping is particularly prohibited under the convention because, where sewage is well treated, the sludge has a high concentration of heavy metals and organochlorines.
Australia's response to the Dumping Convention has been markedly different from that of the United States. The US Environmental Protection Agency noted in 1979 with respect to its own laws: ‘It would be incongruous for Congress to ban dumping of such sewage sludge at dumpsites anywhere from twelve to more than one hundred miles from shore, while, at the same time, to allow it to be discharged through outfalls in nearshore coastal waters’ (EPA, 1979). For this reason, sludge dumping through outfalls has been progressively banned in the United States.
The Australian Federal government has chosen to breach the spirit of the London Dumping Convention by ensuring that the Australian Environmental Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981 (which translates the Dumping Convention’s provisions into Australian law) does not apply to the disposal of sludge or sewage from outfalls and pipelines. Therefore the Sydney Water Board is able to legally discharge organochlorines, mercury and cadmium through its outfall in quantities large enough to accumulate to unhealthy proportions in marine life despite the obvious intention of the Dumping Convention.
State government – how the SPCC has responded
The SPCC has recognised that sewage sludge causes problems in the marine environment but they have been blocked in their efforts to reduce sludge dumping by the Sydney Water Board. They approved plans to put sludge out the new extended ocean outfalls, but in 1985 they attempted to prevent shoreline disposal of sludge, except as an interim measure. This met resistance in the Clean Waters Advisory Committee, particularly from the Water Board representative, who argued that the Board’s research had not shown any detrimental effects from sludge dumping and that alternative methods were inadequate to handle the volume generated in Sydney.
Two years later the SPCC presented an interim policy on sludge disposal which was this time backed up with evidence of the dangers of ocean dumping of sludge. They argued that sludge disposal at sea could cause aesthetic nuisances, accumulation of heavy metals and organics in sediments, undesirable changes to the physiochemical characteristics of the ocean environment, undesirable changes to the aquatic ecosystem, mortality of marine organisms, disease of marine organisms, and bioaccumulation of synthetic organic compounds and trace metals be food organisms.
Despite the many examples they gave to the Clean Waters Advisory Committee about documented damage caused overseas by sludge dumping and the evidence that many countries prohibited such practices, the policy was diverted into a sub-committee for a year and a half and it was only after much public and political pressure in 1989 that the Board and the SPCC have promised to attempt to phase out sludge dumping from all New South Wales outfalls within five years.
Previously in this chapter:
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