Citation: Sharon Beder, 'The Public Relations Assault on Ecological Engineering', International Ecological Engineering Society (IEES) Conference, Lincoln University, November 2001.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications


The successful development of ecological engineering requires that environmental problems and their causes are recognised, that sufficient funding is provided to solve these problems and that solutions are then adopted and widely implemented. However public relations strategies and techniques routinely used by developers and polluters can interfere with these requirements and therefore impede the development and implementation of ecological engineering solutions.

Public relations strategies are often used to hide or downplay environmental problems, to confuse the cause of the problems and to provide perceptual rather than real solutions to environmental problems. They encourage a minimal response and avoid the paradigm changes necessary for ecological engineering innovations. This has been particularly evident in the area of sewerage engineering and the remediation of contaminated sites.


Efforts to protect the environment have tended to concentrate on technological fixes and technologies that are added to existing production processes to control and reduce pollution rather than the redesign of technological systems. Many technological options and alternatives are neither developed nor explored. Although this is often because alternatives are more expensive or less economical, there are other more significant reasons and the lack of recognition of the inadequacy of existing technological systems is one of them. Even today many firms are not implementing technologies aimed at waste reduction and minimisation, despite their availability and probable cost savings (ESD Working Groups, 1991, p. 98).

The reluctance of engineers to take up alternative technologies can be explained partly in terms of  technological paradigms (Beder 1997; Beder 1998). It can also be explained in terms of legislative responses to environmental problems which tend to be weak and to fit with technologies already in use. Because of the reluctance of governments to act against business interests, legislation and economic instruments are seldom tough enough to foster technological change of the type required for ecological sustainability (Beder 1996).

The ability of firms to oppose alternative technologies and undermine government legislation aimed at solving environmental problems is very much facilitated by the use of public relations. Public relations techniques are used to downplay the significance of environmental problems and even cast doubt on their existence. They are also used to shift the blame for problems from particular industries or companies and to make the case that the cost of remedy is too high. (For more on this see Beder 2000).

The development of ecological engineering requires a clear recognition of environmental problems and an open search for solutions that is fully funded. Without these elements the ingenuity of ecological engineers is not directed to the real problems. Finding solutions is just the first step. Such solutions cannot be effective without their adoption and wide dissemination and implementation. This also requires a clear recognition of the problem and the political will to require standards that will force the adoption of better technologies, often radically different technologies. In both cases public relations efforts that aim to obscure problems and their causes, prevent adequate funding and the government intervention necessary to promote ecological engineering solutions.

Firms often have vested interests in particular technological systems and will do all they can to impede the adoption of alternative technological systems. According to McCully (1991, p. 250):

The reason that the USA is the most polluting nation in the world has little to do with a lack of energy efficient technologies or renewable methods of producing electricity: it has a lot to do with the size of the country's oil, coal and automobile industries and the influence they have on the political establishment. In the UK, the public transport system is expensive, unreliable and infrequent, not because the government cannot afford to improve it or does not know how, but because the vested interests behind public transport have negligible power compared to the influential road and car lobbies.

In the remainder of the paper I will illustrate the ways that public relations strategies have been used to forestall the development and implementation of ecological engineering solutions in Australia and NZ.

Ocean Outfalls

The Sydney Water Board (now Sydney Water) like many other water authorities around the world used public relations tools for years to convince the public that rate increases were unnecessary because their cheap solutions to pollution problems were perfectly adequate (Beder 1989). The preferred solution was always ocean outfalls with minimal treatment.

There has been  a  long  tradition  of  blaming the resulting pollution on other sources.  In the early years it was passing ships and  picnickers that were supposed to be responsible for the pollution of the  beaches. Later stormwater  drains,  beach litter,  marine pollution,  algae that looked  like  a sewage field and even gave rise to  ear  and  eye infections  like  a  sewage field,  were all cited as  sources  of pollution (Beder 1989).  A 1980s Sydney Water Board fact sheet countering community concern about sewage pollution stated

It  has been estimated that anchovies off the  coast  of southern  California produce as much faecal matter  each year  as 90 million people - and anchovies are only  one of  hundreds  of species of marine life in this part  of the ocean.

When the Sydney Water Board decided to extend its ocean outfalls and augment them with public relations, rather than upgrade treatment at the ocean outfalls*, it's advertisements sought to create an impression rather than provide information. Visually attractive pictures and text that stressed the good job that the Board was doing were accompanied by a careful use of language that emphasised key phrases designed to subtly ease doubts that people might have. The use of the word "natural" over and over, for example, was designed to give the impression that no harm was being done to the marine ecosystem and that in fact the sewage is being treated as nature meant it to be and that the discharge of sewage is actually beneficial to marine life.

The concern that the public has that sewage be reused and recycled was catered for by the promotion and exaggeration of the tiny amount of reuse that the Board undertook at its inland plants to give the impression that the Board too aimed to recycle sewage where possible. Advertisements showed a huge pile of sludge with the Opera House in the background to imply that sludge reuse was a central mainstream activity rather than a fringe activity that took place only in the furthest corners of the metropolitan area.

Sparkling clean beaches alluded to what the future held. The amount being spent was repeated over and over as if just spending this amount of money must guarantee good results. Frequent press releases marked every milestone in the construction of the deepwater outfalls with pictures of politicians and local dignitaries happily standing over spades with hard hats on. The intended impression was that there was no cause for concern and that those who suggested there was were trouble makers or, at best, well-meaning people mislead by the trouble makers.

Thousands of glossy brochures were distributed at protest meetings, to school children for projects and were available to anyone who is interested. Public relations employees carefully monitored the activities of opposition spokespersons and quickly repaired any damage done through their superior access to the media

Similarly, engineers at the Hutt Valley Drainage Board (HVDB) in NZ also preferred a PR augmented extended ocean outfall to secondary treatment. They asked 'Why waste valuable resources on treating sewage in a land based plant and deprive the fish of a useful food source?' They recognised the main problem associated with implementing an ocean discharge scheme was 'obtaining public acceptance of the principle of marine treatment' (Smith & Speir, 1985). To this end they decided to "educate" the public before giving them the choice between "land-based" treatment (secondary treatment) and "marine"  treatment (that is, putting the sewage into the sea and letting it decompose there).

They had been particularly impressed by propaganda material being produced by the Sydney Water Board PR department. They delightedly pointed out the anchovies statement when I visited them at the beginning of 1988 saying: "There's some good stuff here that we can use". The HVDB had watched the controversy that had occurred in Wellington and decided that they would hire a public relations expert (Beder 1989).

Marine contamination

Sydney Water Board engineers, through their PR consultants argued that toxic waste did not accumulate in the sediments off Sydney's coastline and the deepwater outfalls would provide sufficient dilution and dispersion to ensure toxic waste would not be a problem (Beder 1989). However, the claim that toxic waste did not accumulate was misleading.

In 1973 it had been discovered that marine life was being contaminated with heavy metals. At the time a meeting of personnel involved in the study was held to discuss the findings and the following was reported;

It was agreed that, while the data only represented analyses of individual specimens, levels of heavy metals and pesticides detected in this small number of samples were such as to suggest that a potential public health threat or environmental hazard might exist within the study area... Examination of the gut contents of a number of species of fish in the outfall areas shows that they derive a large percentage of their diet from food particles in the sewage. These fish, in turn, may constitute a significant proportion of the diet of persons who regularly fish in these areas.(Caldwell Connell, 1973)

However, by the time these same findings were reported in the 1979 Environmental Impact Statements for the deepwater outfalls the public statements were very different;

Whilst the statistical significance of the 1973 survey is not able to be clearly established the results are encouraging in that they indicate that no serious environmental problem existed  even prior to the full implementation of source control of restricted substances...(MWS&DB 1979)

In 1987 a study commissioned by the New South Wales State Pollution Control Commission (SPCC, 1989), found large amounts of organochlorines in red morwong and blue groper caught near the Malabar outfall. Levels of BHC (Benzene Hexachloride) were on average 122 times the National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) maximum residue limits and the worst fish had much higher levels (250 times NH&MRC limits).

The Water Board argued that the study should not be published because it was not conclusive and this view prevailed. The Board's planning manager later told the magazine Engineers Australia: 'The criticism that by withholding the study results the board was potentially putting public health at risk had to be weighed up against the risk of causing unwarranted public concern and panic.'

The Board also attempted to discredit the 1987 study by saying that the survey 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 the sample population.

Perhaps even less forgivable is the wording of a Water Board advertisement that was published after the Board had learnt of the disastrous results of the bioaccumulation study. This ad was headlined "Introducing the world's most efficient purification plant" (obviously referring to the ocean which was pictured) and going on to claim

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 off Sydney. (Good Weekend, 12/12/87)

The public was only made aware of fish contamination in early 1989 when I revealed key elements of my PhD research to the media. It was only after the resulting adverse publicity that the SPCC finally placed limits on some toxic substances in Water Board licences. The Water Board was also required by the changed licences to regularly monitor for the first time a large range of toxic substances at various points in the treatment process (Beder 1989).

Remediation of Sydney Olympic site

When Sydney won its bid to host the Olympic Games in the year 2000, it hyped the Games as the 'greenest' summer Olympics of all time. But a massive toxic waste dump lay underneath the fine landscaping of the Olympic site at Homebush Bay. The dump was covered by a metre of dirt and a mountain of public relations (Beder 2000).

Homebush Bay is a former industrial site and armaments depot which, before its transformation, was subjected to years of unregulated waste dumping. Asbestos-contaminated waste and chemicals including dioxins and pesticides had been found there, along with arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc (Property Services Group, 1992). It is the worst toxic waste dump in Australia, and the bay into which the waste leaches is so contaminated that fishing in it is banned. The sediments in the bay have concentrations of dioxin that make it one of the world's worst dioxin hot spots (Rubinstein and Wicklund, 1991, p. 12).

Australian government authorities had decided to use Homebush Bay as the site for a future Olympic Games in 1989. However, even the chance of winning an Olympic bid, could not justify spending the $190 million that experts estimated it would cost to contain and treat the toxic wastes buried there (Whithers, 1996,  p. 135). The government therefore sought a cheaper, more modest remediation strategy to be supplemented with public relations.

Government authorities considered various options for dealing with these wastes. They dismissed segregation and treating of waste materials as too difficult and expensive. A 'Bank Vault' approach Ñcontaining  the contaminated soil with double liners beneath, soil capping over the top, leachate drains and gas collection and treatment systemsÑwas tried for a badly contaminated embankment where the Olympic swimming facility was to be built (Whithers, 1996, pp. 135-9).

The third option, which was chosen for the rest of the site, was to consolidate the landfill waste into a few areas on site, but to dispense with the gas collection and treatment systems and the double liners. This option meant that the wastes would continue to leak into underlying ground water but it was cheaper. Also the government believed that the 'leaky landfill' approach would pose less liability problems. A consultant to the government explained their  thinking:

the liability associated with deterioration and or failure of  'Bank vault' secure landfill remained constant with time but its probability of occurrence increased with time as the facility aged. By contrast the leaky landfill would over time carry less liability as the quality of leachate eventually improved. Therefore it is an intrinsically more robust or resilient way of limiting risks. (Whithers, 1996, p. 139).

In other words, the waste would be disposed of by letting it slowly leak into the surrounding environment, rather than by alternative means that carried the risk of a financial liability that might be incurred by a possible sudden and more traceable major failure in the future.

However, in the reasons given to the public for the leaky landfill option, cost and limitation of liability were not mentioned. The public justification was that it was the only feasible option, given the difficulty of treating such a diverse range of chemicals that were present on the site and  the dangers involved in moving these toxic wastes off site. The option of a more secure landfill or other remediation options were not discussed outside of consultants' reports and were said not to exist. A brochure by the Olympic Coordination Authority falsely described the remediation of the site as 'world's best practice.'

By choosing the leaky landfill option, the planners were able to reduce the cost of remediation of the Olympic site from $190 million to $69 million, including landscaping and road base preparations. A similar risk reduction strategy has was adopted for the rest of the Homebush site covering the Olympic village and a Millennium Park. It is also being heralded as the public relations to enable methods that are far from best practice to be adopted and accepted by local communities.


The treatment of sewage and the remediation of contaminated sites are two areas of ecological engineering that have been obstructed by the preference for public relations solutions that seek to deal with public perceptions rather than solving problems and protecting the environment. Rather than declining as environmental problems increase, environmental public relations is growing exponentially in both the private and public sector. And the techniques being used are becoming more sophisticated and less easily exposed (Beder 2000). This should be a concern for ecological engineers, who should take every opportunity to oppose cheaper public relations alternatives to real ecological engineering solutions.


Beder, S., 2000, Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, 2nd ed., Scribe, Melbourne.

Beder, S., 1998, The New Engineer, Macmillan Education Australia, Melbourne.

Beder, S., 1997, 'Technological Paradigms: The Case of Sewerage Engineering', Technology Studies, 4(2), pp. 167-188.

Beder, S. 1996, The Nature of Sustainable Development, 2nd ed., Scribe, Melbourne.

Beder, S., 1989, Toxic Fish & Sewer Surfing: How Deceit and Collusion Are Destroying Our Great Beaches, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Caldwell Connell, 1973, 'Reconnaissance Survey of Heavy Metal and Pesticide Levels in Marine Organisms in the Sydney Area', October.

Department of Planning, 1991, 'Sydney Regional Environmental Plan No. 24 - Homebush Bay Development Area (Amendment No. 1)', 24 May.

ESD Working Groups, 1991, Final Report Ð Manufacturing, AGPS, Canberra.

McCully, P., 1991, 'The case against climate aid', Ecologist, vol. 21, no. 6, Nov./Dec., 1991.

MWS&DB, 1979, 'Environmental Impact Statement, Bondi Water Pollution Control Plant'.

North, S. and Cook, D., 1993, ''Immediate' benefits if Games come', Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June.

Property Services Group, 1992, 'Briefing Document on Site Remediation and Environmental Investigations at Homebush Bay', March.

Rubinstein, N. and W., John, 1991, 'Dioxin contamination of sediment and marine fauna in Homebush Bay', report for the State Pollution Control Commission, January.

Smith, N.A. and Speir, W.J., 1985, 'Ocean Discharge of Sewage is a Treatment Option', in 1985 Australasian Conference on Coastal and Ocean Engineering, Preprints of Papers - vol. 1, IEAust, IPENZ, NWSCO.

SPCC, 1989, 'Bioaccumulation in Nearshore Marine Organisms I and II'.

Whithers, N. J., 1996, 'Embracing Risk Management: The Homebush-Newington Experience in Olympic Co-ordination Authority', Homebush Bay Ecological Studies 1993-1995, Volume 2, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Vic.

*Treatment was well below the performance of full primary treatment