Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing
The engineers who speak out – and those who don't
Public support for recycling of sewage persisted despite attempts by the Board to discredit the idea. In the end the Board was forced to change its approach to the public (although not its approach to sewage disposal). In more recent times the Board has made much of the small amount of recycling it does at its inland plants and its research into these options. However, the Board still dismisses reuse as an option for sewage currently going to the ocean outfalls and it continues to invest heavily in its preference for ocean disposal.
In this the Board is backed up by the engineers. Many people would like to excuse the engineers from responsibility for what has been happening on the beaches and in the oceans because, after all, it is the politicians and the Board members who set the budgets and it is other agencies who set the standards to be met. The engineers are only doing their job in coming up with a technological solution that meets the standards and stays within the budget. But the fact is that engineers play an active role in shaping public perceptions. Their studies set out to justify and sell the technological solutions they decide are appropriate. For years the Caldwell Connell studies convinced politicians, other government authorities and a whole range of laypeople that the effects of the deepwater outfalls had been thoroughly researched and that they would work as promised.
But for those who took a closer look, the image was shattered. Robert Brain, an engineer with the SPCC (previously quoted on page 86), was asked to take a closer look as part of his job. He was well qualified for this task. His superior, the Principal Engineer for the Water, Wastes and Chemical Section of the SPCC, wrote at the beginning of 1980: ‘In my view only two officers in the Commission, Mr R. Brain and Mr P. Bell, have the necessary expertise to undertake the assessment of this material which is highly technical and includes mathematical and statistical data.’
Brain was highly critical of the Caldwell Connell reports, particularly their choice of models and the assumptions they had made about how the effluent would behave. However, his criticisms caused some embarrassment at the SPCC. It wanted to approve the deepwater outfalls but Brain had now made things awkward. A few months later the Principal Engineer wrote the following:
In the end the SPCC delegated responsibility to two international experts brought out to Sydney by the Board at their request. Professor Norman Brooks of the United States and Professor Paul Harremoes of Denmark, both experts in the field of ocean outfalls, spent a week in Sydney in 1983. They studied the Board’s oceanographic records and inspected the outfall sites from the air. On the basis of the information supplied to them by the Water Board the two agreed that conditions off Sydney were well suited for disposal of sewage. They also said the water quality along the coast would be vastly improved by the deepwater outfalls.
It might be said that these two men were hardly independent. First, they were experts on ocean outfalls, and so unlikely to question the idea. Second, they were dependent on information given to them by the Water Board and its consultants. All that is true, but their reputations were still at stake, and they did not hide some of their reservations about the ability of the proposed outfalls to meet SPCC bathing water standards. These reservations were neither here nor there as far as the SPCC and the Water Board were concerned. They chose to interpret the visit as a wholehearted endorsement of the deepwater outfalls. The SPCC gave its approval and the Water Board used the endorsement by overseas experts in its publicity material. The story was put around that Robert Brain had lost the debate and withdrawn his objections. Brain doesn’t see it that way, but contends that he was shuffled aside because he was an embarrassment. He retired in 1985 but continues to be a critic of the deepwater outfalls. He says that when he was working at the SPCC it was a case of ‘We believe in the Easter Bunny’.
Other expert dissidents are difficult to find. Criticism of the extended outfalls by engineers, where it existed, was fairly well suppressed. The Telegraph (17/1/77) reported that ‘private and government civil engineers’ had criticised the proposed extended outfall plan, arguing that it would do little to solve the pollution problem. But they were not willing to have their names published. In fact it’s an unwritten part of the engineering ethos not to criticise works desired by other engineers, because this may reflect badly on the profession.
Most sewerage engineers are employed by government departments or organisations and those that aren’t are consultants dependent on those same government departments for wort. So critics face the possibility of severely limiting their career prospects. Even Robert Brain had to wait until he retired before he was free to speak publicly.
The case of Fritz Schroeder is relevant here. Schroeder is a chemical operative at the Water Board’s West Hornsby plant. He became concerned because the Board was consistently exceeding its licence conditions and polluting the Hawkesbury River. After he began agitating the Board’s licence was changed so that the true situation would be hidden. For example, the samples were to be taken at a point in the process that was often bypassed. When he went to the media the Board considered sacking him for talking to outsiders without first getting permission. Instead it tried to transfer him away from the plant. When he refused to be transferred they stood him down (2FC ‘Law Report’, 7/12/82).
Schroeder was supported by his union, the Water and Sewerage Employees’ Union, and his case was taken before the Industrial Court. Justice Sweeney recommended that he continue in his employment at the West Hornsby plant but that he undertake to give his superiors written copies of any information that he intended giving to the media 48 hours in advance and that the Board be given the opportunity to be present whenever he commented to the media. The Board in turn was forced to acknowledge that Schroeder’s actions were not motivated by personal gain (2FC ‘Law Report’, 7/6/83).
Schroeder, as a chemical operative, had not come under the Water Board Standing Order l55, which requires the Board's salaried officers to get approval before public presentation of material dealing with the Board’s activities. This standing order states: ‘While the above approach may appear to be another case of “secrecy” within a Government instrumentality, the need for a rule of this nature in an organisation such as the Board is considered to be beyond question.’ The Board says this is necessary, because officers may be looking at only one part of an overall problem and publicity given to that part might be damaging to the Board because it is not given in context. Consultants to the Board are also constrained, by formal agreement, from giving out information without the Board’s permission.
So it was left to outsiders to question the Board’s knowledge base. STOP’s chief researcher (now Greenpeace campaigner), Richard Gosden, began studying the Caldwell Connell reports in detail in 1984, when construction of the extended outfalls began, and, like Brain, found them lacking. He found that whilst the Board presented certain information as fact, there was a whole scientific debate over such things as the health effects of sewage in bathing waters that was ignored. STOP argued that the real reason that the extended outfalls were being built, since their performance was in doubt, was to dispose of industrial waste. They claimed that the sewerage system had become Sydney’s major toxic waste dump. With the extended outfalls toxic substances would be dumped further offshore where they couldn’t be easily identified. Because alternatives such as recycling and secondary treatment require the removal of industrial waste, and because this would cause extra expense to industry, it was avoided.
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