Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing
The public speaks out -- but who's listening?
Despite the Water Board’s best efforts and its alliances with experts, professional groups and some government organisations, it could not regain its credibility and public indignation continued to grow. More than 70 000 people signed the Telegraph/2DAY FM petition, which read:
5000 people marched in the little-advertised annual POOO march and gathered in the rain at Manly. Various enyironmenta1 groups renewed their interest in the subject. Swimming stars and other celebrities such as long distance swimmer Des Renford, Mean Machine member Matthew Renshaw, world surfing champion Barton Lynch, ‘Perfect Match’ host Greg Evans, ‘Midday’ show host Ray Martin, stage star Cameron Daddo, surfing legend Nat Young, swimming legend Dawn Fraser and many others all expressed their concern.
Dawn Fraser, an independent MP in the State Legislative Assembly, called for a bipartisan parliamentary committee to look into the issue of beach and harbour pollution. But Nick Greiner, the Premier, decided to have an inquiry by technical experts and he announced at the beginning of February that his government would be calling tenders from all over the world for experts to undertake a review of the ocean outfalls project and whether it would clean up the beaches. The concession to Fraser’s demands for public participation was a committee of community representatives ‘to ensure the community’s viewpoint is represented during the course of the enquiry’ and to ‘provide comment to the Government’. The government proceeded to hand-pick the community representatives for the committee.
No doubt, the government expected that a review by experts would soothe public agitation as had happened so many times in the past. Certainly the Telegraph prematurely declared the announcement a victory – ‘Greiner Acts to Rescue Beaches’ the front page proclaimed, and ‘Beach pollution attack a victory for the people’ was the headline to the editorial. But the revelations continued. A former Water Board employee, Joe Spadaro, claimed that the Board had staged a break-in at the North Head treatment plant in 1983 to cover their own use of explosives in construction work. The North Head plant is in a politically marginal area and the sitting Labor Party Member was being criticised over pollution issues. Spadaro claims that illegal levels of explosives were used to speed up blasting work at the plant because of this political pressure, and so a break-in was staged and false reports given to police to explain where the explosives had gone. Migrant workers, particularly Yugoslavs, came under suspicion and ASIO and the NSW Special Branch had been notified (Herald, 20/3/89).
Public indignation grew, culminating in the Turn Back the Tide Concert. The concert had been the brain child of Neil Clugston, BMG/RCA Records, and Tod and Marc Hunter, both from the rock group Dragon. It was originally planned as a benefit rock concert for STOP, but the interest shown by the music industry was so keen that the project grew as more and more rock stars added their names to the list of performers, including John Farnham and Jimmy Barnes. Coca-Cola, the State Bank, 2JJJ, 2MMM and 2DAY FM agreed to sponsor the event. Local Surf Life Savers agreed to patrol the beach while it was on. It was decided to set up a foundation, ‘Turn Back the Tide Incorporated', which would manage and allocate the funds raised for the purpose of fighting water pollution.
Organisers were hoping for a crowd of 50 000. No-one expected the huge crowd that made its way down to Bondi Beach on 24 March 1989. The police estimated 240 000 people. And although the music provided entertainment on a dreary and overcast Good Friday, the purpose of the concert was never lost and more than $90 000 was collected in donations (despite the dishonesty of some impostor collectors).
This show of public opinion should have had more impact on the government than it did. But the experts review was already under way. The winners of the tender had been announced – an international engineering firm. The government decided to wait for their report despite the clear indication that the public were not satisfied with the degree of treatment on offer at Sydney’s major outfalls, with or without the extended ocean outfalls. In fact it seems that the New South Wales Government is determined not to be seen to be responding to public demands. Tim Moore’s comment was:
The successful tenderer, Camp Dresser and McKee International, was announced in March. Their local Australian affiliate, Camp Scott Furphy P/L, have a long association of doing work for the Board, including work on treatment plants, according to the Municipal Officers’ Association. Camp Dresser and McKee representatives, who were working out of the offices of their Australian affiliate, told me that they disagree with US legislation that requires secondary treatment of all municipal discharges going into the ocean, because secondary treatment may only provide a small improvement over primary treatment. In fact they probably would not have recommended secondary treatment in Boston (where they were consultant engineers), but it was mandatory under the legislation.
The much publicised $8.5 million monitoring programme is also very much oriented to public relations. I was appointed to the Water Board’s Steering Committee for this programme by Tim Moore in January 1989. The full committee met for the first time in April. It consisted at that time of three Water Board officers, one representative from the SPCC, one from the Hea1th Department, one representative from the Fish Merchants Association and myself, representing the Nature Conservation Council.
My experience at this meeting was not encouraging. The other members of the committee accused the media of distorted reporting and their main interest seemed to be to make sure that in future media reporting was in some way contained and controlled to ensure that their interpretations should be conveyed. They realised that certain findings can no longer be kept secret. They couldn’t point to any false reporting, but they were concerned about the way the reporting was done. The Fish Merchants Association representative was particularly concerned that publication of further monitoring of fish contamination might damage the fishing industry even more. He was assured by the Water Board officers that he was on the committee so that he could ensure that such findings could be presented in the best possible light.
It seems to me that the Board's environmental monitoring programme is aimed at providing an information base, much as the earlier Caldwell Connell studies were, which will allow the Water Board to defend its extended ocean outfalls and its trade waste policy. One of the objectives stated by the Water Board is in fact to ‘provide an information base from which the effectiveness of the outfalls can be demonstrated to the community’.
Evidence that the results of the monitoring programme will be carefully interpreted to show the outfalls in the best possible light came as this book was going to press. The results of a fish survey were released by the Minister for the Environment, Tim Moore. The media was led to believe that this survey, which examined heavy metals in red morwong caught off Sydney, gave the fish a clean bill of health. Television reporters asked why the ban on fishing at the outfalls was not to be lifted now and the Minister for Agriculture said he thought the ban should be lifted.
What the public were not told was that these red morwong were the very same red morwong that had been analysed in a previous report and found to have average levels of chlordane at 12 times the health limits, HCB at 3 times the limits, as well as PCBs, DDT and dieldrin in their flesh (see figure 3.6). The morwong had been caught in 1988 and samples of their muscle tissue set aside for organochlorine and heavy metal testing. The results of the organochlorine testing were released in March 1989 and were so shocking that fishing was banned near the outfalls. The heavy metal testing revealed that almost all the morwong caught were above health limits for mercury. Yet the results were presented in July 1989 in a way that led the media into believing that fish caught near the outfalls were now safe to eat. The Minister had an expert at his press conference, Professor Cairncross from Macquarie University, who said that one would have to eat 50 kg of red morwong a week continually ‘to get any real trouble’. The Minister was even reported as saying that the ‘study proved that the effluent which was being discharged from treatment plants at Malabar, Bondi and North Head was not deemed to be a health hazard for the fish’ (Herald, 4/7/89).
Such conclusions could not be reasonably be drawn from the study and an internal SPCC document criticised the report as having insufficient information to make such recommendations. The document pointed out that fish with high levels of organochlorines in them might be less likely to accumulate mercury. It said that even if the fish had only contained heavy metals and not the high levels of organochlorines, the reporting of average levels of heavy metals could mask very high levels in fish caught closer to the outfalls. The average levels of mercury contamination were compared in the report to upper ranges of mercury contamination in fish in Japan, where people had died from eating contaminated fish, (SPCC, Comments on Water Board Report, 17/7/89).
Yet the misleading impressions arising from the Minister's press conference were not corrected by the relevant government authorities but by myself and Richard Gosden of Greenpeace. Then Cairncross backed down from his statements and later claimed he had not been made fully aware of all the facts before the press conference, (Herald 23/7/89). When Greenpeace passed the SPCC document to the Herald a couple of weeks after the Minister’s press conference, the Minister was reported as saying that ‘At least there is now a new era of openness where the public is being told that such disagreements exist’ (Herald 28/7/89).
The new era of openness still seems to require ihat govern- ment documents must be leaked to the media. Even the SPCC had to fight to obtain the raw data on which the heavy metals report was based. Whoever controls the interpretation of raw data collected as part of the Board’s monitoring programme will be able to hide or highlight the environmental impact of the new outfalls. But who can the public trust?
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