People often ask me: “Why are you in favour of sewage treatment?” or “What have you got against the current practice of dumping raw, untreated sewage into the ocean?” Here’s my answer.
Let me preface my remarks by saying that my position on sewage treatment is not, contrary to what supporters of the current liquid waste management practice would like to think, based on emotional or moral grounds. Rather, my position is based purely on scientific and technical grounds. The fact of the matter is that the current system we have for disposing of sewage, consisting of screening and pumping it out into the ocean via outfall pipes and diffusers, has too many risks associated with it.
We can’t completely control what goes into the system. Source control works to some extent, but we don’t really know what people put down their toilets and drains. The same goes for businesses. For these reasons, the SETAC Victoria sewage panel reminded us in their 2006 report that the best way to control what gets into the ocean is to treat sewage before it gets there.
Nor do we really know for sure what really happens to the sewage once it leaves the outfall pipes. The presumption is that the cold, fast-moving waters of the Strait break the human waste down and disperse it. But, microbiologist Ed Ishiguro claims the waters are too cold to break excrement down. Also, where does all that sewage really go? Where do all the chemicals go, for instance? Do they just get deposited on the seafloor or are they dispersed in marine waters far from the outfall pipes? If the latter, surely that is not a good thing over time. Just think of the mercury, for instance, which could eventually bioaccumulate in fish and whales.
A strong case can be made that we’re also creating a toxic cocktail. Does anyone really know for sure what the impact is of mixing all those contaminants, drugs and bacteria together?
In short, the current liquid waste management practice is not a closed system. In fact, from a purely management perspective, it is more like a leaky boat. Basically, too many things have to go right for those in favour of the current practice to be right when they say that the existing practice is harmless. For instance, the source control system has to be effective; local waters in the vicinity of the outfall pipe have to break the sewage down and diffuse it; the contaminants that end up on the seabed in the vicinity of the outfall pipes can’t be having a significant adverse impact, etc. The real problem is that supporters of the current system only have to be wrong on one of their assumptions for the system to be proved unsafe or unworkable, or both.
Opponents of sewage treatment like to have it both ways. They decry the dangers of piping tons of toxic sludge via a pipeline from McLoughlin Pt. to Hartland landfill, and yet refuse to acknowledge that absent treatment, all that sludge is being dumped into the ocean right now, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. How logical is that, I ask?
In effect, what we’re doing here in Victoria is conducting a gigantic, long-term experiment with respect to our sewage. We’re saying, we don’t think it does any harm, or at least we’re hoping it doesn’t, but in any case we’ll monitor the situation, and if we’re wrong and it does prove harmful, then we’ll treat it! The problem with this approach is that by the time you find out the system is causing harm, it’s too late: the lead time to design, build and operate a treatment plant is about seven years.
As for the aforementioned SETAC report, what it basically concluded was that while there was not much evidence of environmental harm or risk to human health at present, the inherent inadequacy of any source control program, the threat posed by emerging chemicals, and the region’s demographic trends all combined to make the current liquid waste management system unsustainable in the long-term. Now, while that may not sound like a ringing endorsement of the need for sewage treatment for Victoria, we would be unwise to ignore the warning of these experts. And to those critics who say the SETAC report was never peer-reviewed, these people miss the point entirely: the SETAC report, which scoured over two hundred scientific and technical reports in the course of their work, was itself a peer review!
For all these reasons, I say, let’s stop playing Russian roulette with nature. Let’s stop dumping raw, untreated sewage into an area where fish swim, windsurfers surf and killer whales roam freely. Instead, let’s do the prudent thing and treat our sewage, now, before it’s too late. Not in 2040, but now, in our lifetimes.
Is it going to cost a lot? Well, like most things, it depends on how you look at it. Victoria has had a free ride for years, and if we had gone to treatment years ago, as we probably would have but for the fact that our local MP, the Environment Minister at the time, was and is a staunch opponent of sewage treatment for Victoria, it would undoubtedly have cost a lot less. And the longer we wait, the more expensive it is going to become. If we do it now it might cost the average household around $365 per year. So, as Victoria’s Mayor Fortin recently pointed out, a family of four has unlimited access to the toilet for $1 per household per day, or 25 cents each. That sounds like a pretty good deal, don’t you think? What the heck are people complaining about, I ask?
In short, let’s just suck it up and get on with it, shall we?