This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.
Sydney, like so many other coastal cities, has used the ocean to dispose of wastes since it became a city 150 years ago. The first sewers discharged their putrid load into Sydney Harbour at the point now adorned by the Opera House. The City Engineer had chosen the cheapest, easiest way of sewering the city and argued that the current would take the sewage away. Other Harbour outfalls soon followed. In 1875 3800 people petitioned the government that "all the filth of the city" was being desposited into the harbour, "rendering all business occupations upon its shores disgustingly offensive, largely increasing the sickness of the citizens, and silting up year by year navigable water".
Following repeated complaints the city sewage was diverted to the ocean, the first ocean outfall being established near Bondi Beach at the end of last century. Two other major ocean outfalls followed and each time government engineers assured an alarmed public that the beaches would not be affected because the current would carry the sewage away. When the outfalls were built and the sewage began showing up onshore, the Water Board denied that the pollution had originated from the outfalls and argued that it must have been brought there by beachgoers themselves or drifted there from passing ships.
Eventually, in 1936, following a concerted public campaign, the Board promised to install primary treatment at the major outfalls. However this promise was only partly fulfilled in 1984 when the Board began work extending the ocean outfalls into deeper water. The treatment provided was a very rudimentary form of treatment that removed only about 15% of solid matter from the sewage before discharge. The Board achieved this paltry result by overloading two primary treatment plants so that they didn't work properly and, at the third outfall, by pioneering a new form of treatment it euphemistically called "high-rate" primary treatment, which accomplished the same goal as an overloaded primary treatment plant.
The Board argued that the sewage did not require more treatment because sewage treatment occurred naturally in the ocean. It seemed deaf to the protests of beachgoers who objected to having to swim in a de facto sewage treatment plant. This attitude had not changed in 1987 when the Board, as part of a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to persuade the public that the extended outfalls would solve pollution problems, introduced readers to "the world's most efficient purification plant", the ocean:
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. What they don't recycle the salt water and sunshine purify naturally... (advertisement in Sydney Morning Herald, 12/12/87)
What is extraordinary about these statements is that at the time the Water Board knew that these fish, far from thriving, were accumulating dangerous levels of organochlorines. A study that year had revealed that two out of three species of fish caught near the largest outfall had levels of organochlorines in their muscle tissue that exceeded National maximum residue limits for fish. Red morwong had average levels of benzene hexachloride that were 122 times the residue limits for fish. These same fish also exceeded residue limits for heptachlor expoxide (more than 50 times on average) and dieldrin. A further study the following year, 1988, confirmed that the sewage outfalls were the source of organochlorine in fish.
These results were kept secret and it was only after they were leaked to the media in 1989 triggering off a sustained media campaign against sewage pollution, a protest concert on Bondi Beach attended by about 240,000 people and an independent review of the Water Board's plans, that the government committed itself to a programme of reforms. At the end of 1989 the NSW Government promised it would spend more than $7billion dollars cleaning up waterways in Sydney and surrounding regions.
The Water Board seems to have some trouble honouring the commitments made however. The commitment to cease dumping of sludge by 1992 has had to be postponed whilst the Board continues to search for a way to deal with sludge that is laced with toxic industrial wastes. (The sludge mountains in Europe are, as yet, not a feature in Sydney since the government here believes the ocean will do in the meantime.)
The choice of technologies with which to upgrade the coastal sewage treatment plants has also been delayed because of the resistence of government and the Board to installing conventional secondary treatment. Such treatment is expensive and would require restrictions on industrial waste, because toxic waste can kill the micro-organisms that break down the sewage. Instead the Board is seeking to pioneer some new, cheap technologies that can deal with indutry-contaminated sewage. As with its earlier invention of "high-rate" primary treatment, the Board is seeking to lead the world backwards, in finding "compromise" technologies for governments that are unwilling to pay the full price of sustainable environmental protection.
Sharon Beder, Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1989.
State Pollution Control Commission, Bioaccumulation in Nearshore Marine Organisms, vol 1, 1989.