By Peter Boyle
MELBOURNE — On January 28, the day Greenpeace released a videotape of a large and rare reef endangered by an ocean sewer outfall due to begin operation at the famous Ninety Mile Beach in Gippsland, hundreds of dead penguins were washing up on southern beaches. It was a grim reminder of the costs of continuing to use the ocean as a dumping ground for large amounts of industrial and domestic waste.
According to Greenpeace's toxics campaign coordinator, Lynette Thorstensen, the Victorian government has wasted $16 million dollars building an outfall that will perpetuate ocean pollution.
Thorstensen called for an immediate suspension of work on the outfall while an independent and comprehensive study into the marine environment at the site is carried out.
The La Trobe Valley Ocean Outfall, as it is officially called, has been opposed from the start by environmentalists and the local fishing industry. But their objections were brushed aside and inadequate environmental impact studies were conducted before the plans were forced through in 1990.
However, a recent study by Monash University scientists Mia Thurgate, David May and associate professor Neil Hallam revealed the presence of the limestone reef system (not detected in the official environmental surveys), which was probably an important breeding ground for crayfish, snapper and trevally.
The outfall could adversely effect the multimillion dollar Bass Strait fishing industry, Greenpeace warned. Further, the scientists noted that the reef was of a type that was "extremely rare for the exposed coasts of southern Australia".
It is likely that the reefs are important feeding and breeding grounds for many creatures and their degradation could have widespread effects. Already, over-fishing in the southern waters is suspected as the cause of the recent penguin deaths: most of the dead penguins died because they were underfed.
The outfall was built to dump some 50 million litres of domestic sewage, pulp mill effluent and oil well waste waters a day. Most of this waste is currently being dumped into Lake Coleman after secondary treatment at the Dutson Downs sewerage farm. Waste water from Australian Paper Mills' Maryvale pulp mill accounts for half the waste, and Esso-BHP's offshore rigs will make up a growing proportion. The outfall has a further 15 million litre/day spare capacity.
Thorstensen said that recent studies by the Swedish Environmental Protection Board of a pulp mill (of a type similar to the Maryvale mill) dumping secondarily treated waste water into the sea, showed an adverse effect on the marine environment.
Greenpeace believes that if industries were not allowed to dump their waste into the sewerage system, the outfall would not be needed, because the domestic sewerage can easily and cheaply be processed and recycled on land. If companies are forced to deal with their own waste, then they are more likely to move to clean production systems.
Thorstensen said that APM could move to clean production if it brought in state of the art, non-chlorine bleaching mill technology being used overseas. This would massively reduce water consumption and recycle waste waters. In fact, current international market trends show that chlorine-bleached paper products have a limited future, she added.
Greenpeace has been attacked by the Victorian government and some business figures for trying to change a decision after $16 million has been spent and official environmental studies were done. But the official studies were farcical, according to Greenpeace's information.
The first official study — an "Environmental Effects Statement" issued in 1986 by the La Trobe Region Water Authority (LTRWA) — said that the only adverse effects of the outfall would be:
- temporary disturbance to the area in the immediate vicinity of the pipeline route during construction;
- temporary local disturbance of the sea floor along the pipeline route;
- slight impact on ocean water quality in the vicinity of the diffuser, but within acceptable limits.
In September 1990, a government review panel asked for a further four "extensive surveys" of the effect on the marine environment to be undertaken by the LTRWA in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) "before discharge commences". A year later, the "Final Works Approval" was issued subject to the same requirement.
But as far as Greenpeace has been able to ascertain from the EPA, only one biological survey has begun, only one sediment sample has been taken, and four seawater samples have been taken but not yet analysed!
The reef, which is a mere 500 metres from the diffuser, was not detected until the Monash University scientists did their study for the Lakes Entrance Fishing Cooperative. Greenpeace divers have confirmed the reef's existence on videotape.
Waste of money
Ocean outfalls are a waste of taxpayers' money, according to Thorstensen, who cited the failure of the new ocean outfalls in Bondi and Manly in Sydney. Basically the sewerage comes back to the beach. And in the case of Ninety Mile Beach, CSIRO studies indicated that the waste will come back to the shore 24% of the time (when onshore easterly, south-easterly or southerly winds blow).
Dr Brian Robinson, the chairperson of the EPA, concedes that the ocean outfall is only a "medium-term solution to waste disposal" but Alan Humphreys, the chief executive officer of the LTRWA, disagrees. He told Caroline Milburn of the Age that the pipeline was a long-term solution and would pump the mixed domestic and industrial waste into the ocean for at least 50 years.
Robinson said that Australia cannot afford to keep dumping waste into the sea and conceded that big waste-producing corporations seemed more reluctant to move to clean production than in the United States or Europe. Thorstensen says that Swedish paper mills have committed themselves to totally phasing out organo-chlorine emissions by early next century but that industry won't take this direction in Australia while dumping into the sewerage system continues to be allowed.