by Sharon Beder
first published by Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1989
It is tempting at this point to look for a simple technological fix to Sydney’s ocean pollution problems. People would like to think that all that is required is to upgrade the treatment process at each outfall, but clearly the whole institutional structure of decision-making has failed and needs overhauling. The recent decisions to improve the situation were made only after media exposés and a crisis in public confidence in the authorities. These decisions include the dramatic raising of fines and penalties for illegal dumpers, the promised phasing out of sludge dumping at sea, the inclusion of limits on toxic sub- stances in licences, the re-evaluation of Surfline, the raising of an environmental levy, the increasing of the number of trade waste officers, the increase in charges for water and sewerage rates for large industrial concerns, the review of the Board’s beach protection programme, and the partial opening up of information to community and environmental groups.
However, these are ad hoc decisions made during a crisis. The institutional structure of decision-making that brought on that crisis remains untouched. The problems of Sydney’s beach and ocean pollution arose in the first place because the decision-making has always been behind closed doors and most relevant information has been accessible only to bureaucrats and politicians. Publicly sanctioned legislation has been turned over to negotiation between an elite of public servants, engineers, and industrialists. These people have lost touch with community needs and desires.
Standards for discharges going into the ocean were set in 1974 by the SPCC in negotiation with the Water Board. Attempts to tighten up those standards have been blocked by interest groups, such as the Water Board and the PWD, who have too much say in SPCC activities. The resulting standards have not reflected community requirements, as expressed in the Clean Waters Act and Regulations, but rather bureaucratic requirements for narrowly defining ‘cost-effectiveness’. When left to themselves engineers set standards that can be easily and cheaply met using existing technologies, rather than standards that protect the environment.
It is only public pressure that is forcing the Board to monitor its discharge for toxic substances. Almost two years after the 1987 Bioaccumulation Study the Board still does not know how much BHC is going out its outfalls, even though this substance was accumulating to levels up to 250 times the health limits in fish. It is only in recent months that the SPCC has requested them to do this monitoring and that limits on these substances have been included in the Water Board licences. These measures did not follow from the SPCC learning the result of the Bioaccumulation Study but rather from the publicity following the leaks to the Herald.
Moreover, the limits included in the new licences cover only those substances that have received publicity for their heavy contamination of fish. Other substances that have been over health limits, such as cadmium, dieldrin and arsenic, are not limited in the licences, nor are a whole range of other heavy metals and organochlorines that have not yet been shown to be accumulating in marine life. Limits for these are not included in current licences because the Board might not be able to meet them. Here is a clear example of the failure of regulation when it is left solely to the bureaucrats. Licence conditions have been set according to the Board's inability to control toxic wastes going into the sewers rather than according to the requirements of the legislation, which is supposed-to protect the environment.
Two decades ago people in New South Wales made their choice and that choice has been on the statute books for seventeen years. Wastes were not to be discharged that would adversely affect beaches. Wastes had to be visually free from grease, oi1 and solids and free from settleable matter. Nor were wastes to be discharged if they were likely to be harmful to or give rise to abnormal concentrations of wastes in aquatic life. All these environmental standards have been routinely subverted by bureaucrats and those who control them.
Enforced legislation is essential if new treatment methods are to be developed and alternative treatments taken seriously. Whilst regulators bend the rules to fit conventional treatment that is easily afforded, then such alternatives don’t get a look in. Monitoring and enforcement should not be carried out by the organisations discharging the waste. Studies need to be done to expand our knowledge of health risks from bathing in sewage-polluted water and from consuming contaminated fish.
The sewers should not be used for the disposal of toxic waste, nor should industry under any circumstances be allowed to put heavy metals and toxic chemicals down the sewers even if they pay to do so. Illegal dumping then seems to be just a matter of cheating on charges, like tax evasion, rather than a serious crime. A comprehensive study of industrial waste generated in Sydney and its disposal needs to be undertaken. It should not be possible for any firm to illegally dispose of any waste they routinely generate without having to explain where that waste went.
Finally, it is obvious that the sewage going into the ocean is inadequately treated and will be so under present Water Board proposals. The remedy may require extra treatment at the existing plants or it may require a progressive rerouting of sewage to various areas where it can be used for irrigation and fertiliser. Or more likely it will require a combination of such remedies. Decentralisation seems to be the most promising alternative at this stage. But it is important that whatever remedy is chosen, it is one that ensures that high standards of environmental protection are maintained well into the future.
We are at a crossroads in the development of Sydney’s sewerage system. The problems are not confined to ocean pollution and the treatment of sewage. The sewerage system is old and decaying. Its cracked and disintegrating pipes easily fill with water every time it rains and they overflow into all our waterways. Often their capacity is inadequate and this will be exacerbated as rainfall increases because of the greenhouse problem. The sewerage system is going to have to be renewed over the coming decades if we don’t want even further environmental degradation.
We can go on trying to adjust what is really a faulty system. We can put in extra treatment at Malabar, Bondi and North Head and this will afford some improvement. Even the primary treatment process could be enhanced to give some improvement. (The CSIRO magnetite treatment and the Memtec filtration system promise to give a high level of solids removal.) We can fix up the pipes a few at a time by relining them. We can even divert newly-sewered areas into other catchments. But these are band-aid measures that will merely extend our problems into the future. They may be politically attractive because they offer a cosmetic solution that takes the issue from the front pages of the newspapers and relieves the pressure on politicians to do something. And such solutions may be promoted by engineers because they are economical. Consultants in the sewerage engineering field get business because they can come up with economic solutions that the public can be persuaded to accept. That is their job. But what is cheap and economic in engineering terms is not always cheap in the long term.
Or we can make some bold decisions – ones that future generations will thank us for. The North American Indians have a wisdom that decisions should be made that are good for the seventh generation from now. We live in a society that is stingy with public spending to the extent that private affluence is accompanied by public squalor. Our primitive waste disposal systems cannot cope with our sophisticated lifestyles. We could work towards environmental standards that we will be proud of.
The choice should not be left to the politicians or the engineers. Decisions about how to treat and dispose of our sewage are not technical decisions. They involve judgements as to how clean we want our beaches, what level of environmental protection we want for our oceans and how much we are willing to pay. Yet governments prefer to define such decisions as technical and hand them over to the experts. In this way, the decision appears to be based upon objective scientific and economic criteria. Difficult issues such as conflicting interests do not have to be resolved – everthing is decided solely on the basis of cost and effectiveness in solving the immediate problem. Defining a problem as technical hides the political choice and priorities involved and reduces the debate to arguments over technical details. Unspoken objectives such as priorities afforded to industrial concerns do not become explicit.
If it is admitted that a decision has social and political dimensions then it is much more difficult to leave it to the scientists and technologists or to use experts to legitimate decisions. Governments have always sought to soothe controversy by bringing in the experts (see chapters 1 and 2). Most engineers are fully aware of the political dimensions of the decisions they make and the advice they give but they cannot make them explicit for fear of undermining the faith others have in expertise. They must appear to be apolitical for, after all, they are not elected and it is their perceived neutrality that allows them to have power. Engineers, like other experts, tend to view public debate of their designs as an undue interference with their professional autonomy. They are awarded status in society because of their special knowledge, skills and experience and any suggestion that this expertise does not provide a sufficient basis for decision-making or that an outsider should have equal say in those decisions clearly undermines the whole concept of expertise. It threatens the prestige of the profession.
The effects of professional ideologies, government priorities and bureaucratic sensitivities combine to work against the cause of increased public participation. The reaction to any publicly expressed doubts is a defensive one. The public is locked out on the grounds of lack of expertise. Yet sewerage decisions, like other decisions surrounding public sector technologies, are not purely technical decisions. They involve choices that reflect values and priorities concerning the environment, health, 1aw and economics. No one would claim that engineers are experts in assessing community values and priorities. It is doubtful that these things can be assessed with- out open public discussion.
It is not clear that public participation would have given rise to more equitable or more environmentally-sound decisions. Nevertheless, it should be clear that the rationale for leaving decision-making in the hands of the experts is flawed. More-over, recent events suggest that it is only public pressure that will move politicians and bureaucracies into action when they would rather hide evidence of environmental damage than do something about it.
The Water Board was set up at the end of last century as an autonomous body removed from the democratic process because it was thought that what it would have to do to clean up the environment would be unpopular, although necessary. Today the situation is reversed. The Water Board is still removed from the democratic process, but it is using its autonomy to resist popular pressure for environmental protection. The members of the Board are not elected, nor are they representatives of regions covered by the Board, as used to be the case. They are appointed by the government.
This appointed Board makes policy decisions and carries out directions from the Minister in charge. Yet because the Board is not a government department, the Minister is able to distance himself from the Board and is not held directly responsible for the actions of the Board in the same way he would be with a department. In this way, successive Ministers have not taken the interest in the Board’s activities that might be thought necessary to translate community requirements into Board policy.
Instead, the appointed Board have approved the schemes put before them by their engineers because they were not too expensive and they were told they would do the job. They have been primarily concerned with keeping rates down, ensuring the smooth operation of the Board, and promoting a good public image. The recent moves to run the Board as a commercial operation are in line with these preoccupations. The Water Board Act 1987 requires the Board to be businesslike and commercial in its activities. As a result the Board meetings are closed to the public so that pricing matters could be we discussed behind closed doors.
The Water Board’s shortcomings might not have been so important if the SPCC had been doing its job properly and ensuring that the Board’s discharges were not harming the environment. But the Commission is also made up of government-appointed members as well as representatives of various interest groups. It is advised by committees that are similarly constituted and it is relatively weak and under- funded in comparison to the Board. It does not have the money to monitor discharges into waterways itself. Sometimes it has to request the Board to bring out experts from the US and thereby loses its right to say which experts should be used.
Public pressure to upgrade standards is stymied by representatives of industrial and government polluters, who occupy key positions on the Commission and associated committees. For the SPCC to effectively enforce community standards rather than convenient standards, it needs to be reconstituted so that its members are elected-that is, directly accountable to the New South Wales electorate.
It is time the New South Wales government opened up to the people and allowed them some say in public affairs. Avenues for public participation need to be genuine and formalised. The free flow of information to the public has to be institutionalised and not left up to the discretion of bureaucrats and politicians of the day. The Water Board and the SPCC both need to be restructured to allow far greater democratic control. The Clean Waters Advisory Committee and other committees representing vested-interest groups should be abolished. Until this happens the people of Sydney will not be able to trust public officials who tell them the problem has been solved.