by Sharon Beder
first published by Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1989
THE RELATIONSHIP between the Sydney Water Board and the media has over the last few decades been predictable and fairly stable. The Board could be fairly confident about getting its press releases published and its version of events reported. Sure, some of the tabloid papers occasionally made a big story out of the pollution on the beaches, but that was okay because the Board was fixing it. The Board’s public relations department had a comfortable relationship with the media, putting out the occasional brush fire with its version of the facts, and that version was almost never challenged by journalists. ‘Serious’ papers like the Sydney Morning Herald could be relied upon not to report unsubstantiated claims and to give preference to ‘expert’ opinions such as those coming from government officials.
The events of early 1989 came as a shock to the Water Board. The Sydney Morning Herald was on the attack, with the rest of the media jumping in behind it – hardly an ally in sight. It was like the betrayal of a lover and the usually slick operation of the Water Board public relations machine crumpled in bewilderment as its attempts to patch things up were rejected. All the elements of a lovers’ squabble were there – the heated screaming matches over the phone followed by embarrassed apologies, the threats, the indignation, the sleepless nights and the stress-related illnesses.
To the Water Board officers the whole episode, from the Herald’s first revelations of 7 January to the 240 000-strong attendance at the Turn Back the Tide Concert on 24 March, was just a media beat-up. After all, nothing substantial had changed from the previous year. Leigh Richardson, manager of Surfline, was reported as saying that the sudden interest in water pollution was largely a figment of the media's imagination (Herald, 28/1/89). Why was there suddenly so much interest in sewage pollution? Was it just that the papers were short on stories?
Yet the stories were astounding, not only those about fish containing average levels of pesticides more than 120 times the NH & MRC limits, but also those about the suppression of this by at least two government bodies and two successive Ministers.
In September 1988 the Australian Underwater Federation had written to the SPCC requesting the results of the 1987 Malabar Bioaccumulation Study (see chapter 3). The Federation’s members had noticed that certain species caught, near the outfalls had mushy, tainted flesh. There were also reports of deformed fish with growths and malformed fins (AUF correspondence to SPCC, 29/9/88). The risk to spearfishermen eating red mowong caught at Malabar had been noted by senior SPCC officers before this request was made (Meeting Notes 18/5/88). Yet the Australian Underwater Federation were not told the results of the study.
I obtained these results, almost by accident, when I was undertaking research for a PhD. I was researching the decision to extend the ocean outfalls as part of a study on how engineering decisions are made. The SPCC actually turned out to be a better and more accessible source of information for this than the Water Board. I had no trouble interviewing the relevant engineers in the SPCC who willingly answered my questions. It was more difficult, however, getting written information and internal reports and I had to get my supervisor and the Head of the School to write to be Director of the SPCC. As a result of this letter I visited the SPCC and an employee was assigned to find the information I wanted. He brought me several relevant files and l took notes from these files for an hour or two until someone noticed that I was reading some of the memos and reports that Robert Brain had written. A short time later I was interrupted and was told that a mistake had been made in giving be these files. A check had to be made with the legal officer. I was asked to show the notes I had taken but I refused. After consultations with their legal officer I was told to mark the reports that I wanted to read and they would check that it would be okay with the Water Board.
When I returned to see the vetted reports I was told not to read Brain’s reports (but I had already taken my notes on those). I was also able to see the Clean Waters Advisory Committee Meeting Minutes and Business Papers. Late in 1988 I came across the results of the 1987 Malabar Bioaccumulation Study. I am sure they hadn’t realised these results were amongst the material I was reading. I copied them down quickly, not realising at the time just how bad they were because I didn’t know what the NH & MRC limits were.
I gave my notes to Alan Tate of the Sydney Morning Herald at the end of l988 after he approached me about an article he was writing on Sydney’s water pollution problems. However, Tate had great trouble in having the results confirmed; being a careful journalist he could not rely on my notes alone. He did find one frightened person who said he would confirm them but despite several phone calls, night after night, this person could not bring himself to do it. Finally, Tate suggested that all the person had to do was cough to confirm the results. He coughed and the story was told.
A few hours before publication, Tate rang the Board to tell them he had the results of the study. He was warned by a senior Water Board officer that it would be wrong of the Herald to print the story since the results were open to question. He told Tate that the Board had been unable to ascertain if the substance that had accumulated to over 122 times the health limit in red morwong was benzene hexachloride or lindane. If it was lindane then it would be only slightly over the health limits. Tate rang the Australian Analytical Laboratories, which had performed the analysis. He found out in one phone call that it was not lindane at all, it was benzene hexachloride, and the laboratory would have told the Board that if they had asked!
The story hit the papers on Saturday 7 January 1989, and far from exaggerating the results, the Herald actually understated them somewhat. Nevertheless they received full television coverage that night. The article, by Tate and Paul Bailey, revealed the results of the 1987 study and certain other studies from the 1970s that had also never been published (see chapter 3). When asked why their earlier studies hadn't been published the spokesman for the Fisheries Research Institute had said that no scientific journal would have published them. ‘Sometimes we do these just as a sort of public relations exercise,’ he said. ‘You know, go down there and collect some fish.’ The Herald pointed out that these were public relations exercises ‘where the public were not encouraged to learn about the results’ (7/1/89).
The Board still tried to play down the significance of the 1987 study, saying it was merely a preliminary study and no significance should be attached to it: ‘The results obtained from this study were from a very small sample number and were not compared to any sample with a known concentration. It is not unusual for studies of this nature to have high errors associated with them due to natural variations within be sample population’ (1987 Bio-Accumulation Report, Cover Note). It argued that the heptachlor epoxide measured in red mowong at an average of 50 times the NH & MRC maximum limits for seafood was actually some sort of sulphur compound. Yet the SPCC, which had done the survey, stood by their results and the credibility of the Australian Analytical Laboratories was well established.
Even more amazing was the wording of a Water Board advertisement that was published after the Board had first been advised of the results of the bioaccumulation study. This ad was headlined ‘lntroducing the world’s most efficient purification plant’ (referring to the ocean, which was pictured) and it read:
This is also the world’s largest and most natural treatment plant, and it has some of the most experienced employees as well. Hundreds of species of fish and other marine organisms exist here to do little more than thrive on breaking down the pre-treated effluent discharged into the ocean of Sydney. (Good Weekend, 12/12/87)