Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing
Byron Bay also experienced a change of council whilst options for sewage disposal were being discussed. The greening of Byron Shire ensured that an ocean outfall would not be approved by council although council engineers and PWD engineers believed it was the best option. The Byron Bay population is adamantly opposed to the idea of an ocean outfall because the area owes much of its tourist industry to the reputation of its beauty, its surf and its crystal clear waters.
A treatment site at West Byron had already been brought in 1983 and various alternatives were considered. Using the sewage for agriculture was dismissed by the PWD because the area had too much rain. It was also argued that disposal into a legally protected wetland system near the treatment site would be ruinous. Deep well injection and sand dune disposal were also rejected. Finally the council engineers came up with a way of discharging the sewage into artificial wetlands, as further treatment after secondary treatment, before discharge into the natural wetlands.
The idea of artificial wetlands captured the popular imagination and was supported by local environmentalists and councillors. They would be cheap, and everyone was glad that there would not be an ocean outfall. However, Byron's artificial wetlands system seems to be only a temporary solution, allowing for an ocean outfall in the long term. The system has placated the public and the council, and allowed the secondary treatment plant to be built. Like Sydney’s sewage farm (chapter 1), which was also a way of keeping the people happy till an outfall could be built, the artificial wetlands will become over-loaded in a few years, threatening the natural wetlands. And then what?
Officers of both the PWD and the SPCC told Richard Gosden of STOP that they considered the artificial wetlands proposal to be a short-term solution only. The council engineers confided to me that they were surprised that environmentalists like the idea of the artificial wetlands because failure could damage the sensitive natural wetlands. However, all mention of the possibility that the natural wetlands might be affected and that an ocean outfall was the fallback option was carefully removed from the Environmental Impact Statement. The draft impact statement prepared by Byron Shire Council at the end of 1987 and given to me shortly before publication contained the following:
These sentences were omitted from the final published version of the statement, and the following inserted:
This statement went on display over the Christmas holidays and there were complaints that it did not fulfil legal requirements for an Environmental Impact Statement. One submission by Friends of the Earth argued that the Environmental Impact Statement did not consider an important alternative. It argued that Byron Bay would be best served by a decentralised sewage treatment and disposal system. This could involve small-scale treatment units to service individual houses, blocks of fats and even larger commercial developments such as caravan parks and shopping centres.
In this same submission, Stuart White argued that because centralised systems of sewage treatment involve the concentration of large volumes of waste at a single point, they limit the options or what to do with the sewage. So ocean disposal becomes the obvious choice from an engineering point of view, despite all its attendant problems.
White argued that by decentralising sewage treatment, wastes would be dealt with on an appropriate scale as close as possible to source. Rivers, creeks and ocean waters would not be used as treatment works; nutrients could be returned to the soil by linking up the small decentralised plants to local gardens; and high strength wastes could be isolated and dealt with appropriately (treated properly) rather than relying on dilution in natural waterways. Moreover, there would be far more flexibility in development options for the area because the small individualised treatment plants could be added where necessary. A centralised sewerage system requires forecasting future development many years ahead (or putting up with overloading and its attendant environmental and public health costs), establishing and paying for treatment works that will cater to that future growth and then being dependent on development of the area to finance the loans required to build the sewerage system. White characterised the difference: ‘On the one hand the prospect of development unchecked, to pay for the bottomless pit of the centralised treatment path. On the other, considered and harmonious development, with a “built-in” incentive to provide for open space, gardens and parks’ (White, 1988).
In fact, the concept of a backyard or garden in city dwellings may well have arisen from the need to put the cesspit some-where before sewers were available. But it should be pointed out that modern technology has come some way since cesspits and septic tanks were invented, and modern individualised treatment plants do not have the same problems that we commonly associate with on-site sewage treatment.When a second environmental impact statement was prepared by consultants to the Council a few months later, the decentralised treatment and disposal option was covered but dismissed because it would require a full feasibility study, which they felt, given the urgency of the matter, the administrative difficulties, high costs and environmental sensitivities, was not warranted.
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