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The line in the sand

[from the Mornington Mail - 15th March 2001]

At what point are governments driven to major capital expenditure? How will this state government determine ‘cost’ when a range of future options for the Eastern Treatment Plant are put before it after October this year? The Clean Ocean Foundation wants to ensure that this year’s decision – which could determine conditions at Boags Rocks for the next 25 years – is not one which sees the community’s expectation for a real environmental solution compromised by the money. Environment Minister Sheryll Garbutt and the state opposition need to hear loud and clear from peninsula people that we understand the politics of money … and it’ll cost them if they don’t understand us.
By James Clark-Kennedy

The major obstacle for change at the Boags Rock outfall is, of course, money.

Upgrading Melbourne’s sewerage treatment processes at the Eastern Treatment Plant to at least Tertiary Class A standard will take hundreds of millions. And inextricably linked to major capital expenditure by governments in the short term is the “NIMTO” principle.

Clean Ocean Foundation members say the NIMTO principle (Not in My Term of Office) has been a very real obstacle for bringing the South Eastern Treatment Plant’s operations up to contemporary, enlightened expectations of environmental protection.

But after 25 years of governmental inaction, the organisation has declared this week a war on NIMTO politics – and is looking to enlist peninsula voters to the frontline.

It’s a big ask - the hundreds of millions of dollars needed aren’t likely to enthuse any election campaign manager for the major parties. Those dollars aren’t going to get anyone across town quicker, nor change the Melbourne skyline.

Those dollars won’t immediately buy tangible gains for a majority of the state’s voters. Except us of course, peninsula people – those who derive what the EPA’s licence calls “beneficial use” of the local beaches and marine environment which are sullied by the outfall.

As we’ve said before in this series, demand for change won’t come from Melburnians who are simply happy to see the stuff disappear from their toilets. It’s our community, our ocean playground the pollution spills into. It’s from here that the cry “foul” must be heard.

The big sewerage plant upgrade investment will, however, buy long term gains for all of the state.

So, the Clean Ocean Foundation is gearing up for a hard sell on the positives of spending millions.

Their first argument is simple politics: the peninsula community is more enlightened about the inadequacy of that treatment plant; more educated about the risk to human health the outfall poses in its current state; and it may be worth at least a couple of seats at the ballot box for the government which understands that we’re worth the money.

Their second point is that long term statewide political gain might eventuate for a government which is as enlightened as our community about the possibilities for better treatment of the 880 million litres of effluent which go out at Boags Rock each day.

“The four-year term of the political process inhibits any long-term infrastructure development,” says Clean Ocean Foundation’s Sally Mitchell, “but the water issue has become the most important issue on the agenda in 2001”.

“If the politicians did some triple bottom line calculations they would reveal the amount of money to be spent dealing with our water crisis in the next 10 years will far outweigh any capital allocated in the current term of government.

Producing a near potable quality of effluent, would pave the way for major uptake on re-use – above the 20 per cent Melbourne Water should achieve by 2010, but which is only achieving about one per cent now.
This increase in re-use expectations has positive statewide implications for our precious water resources.
Clean Ocean Foundation hopes such projections of ramifications for state water supply will be presented to the government in the case for tertiary treatment presented in October.

“Years of inaction and Band-Aid decisions made in an attempt to protect the bottom line have delivered the crisis we have in water issues today,” says Ms Mitchell.

“The waste of 880 million litres of effluent per day in Victoria is an indicator of the short term thinking endemic in the political system.

“The total outfall issue at Gunnamatta incorporating health effects of beach users, waste of natural resources, damage to the marine environment is a state crisis.

“This has been occurring for years and still the decisions are delayed. Most people even the EPA and Melbourne Water know there is a problem but use the financial aspects and bureaucracy to justify inaction.
“It’s time to draw the line in the sand and invoke the basic principles of democracy: the community demands a sustainable solution.”

Already baulked

There are real reasons to be concerned about the looming presentation of future options.
We’ve been lumbered with the current, inadequate outfall engineering, through the compromise of the 70s.

In 1975 the Boags Rocks effluent outfall was commissioned by the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW).

“Weather difficulties, engineering concerns or just plain financial mismanagement prevented the outfall from being extended out into Bass Strait, as was initially planned,” Ms Mitchell said.

In the 1960s when the Eastern Treatment Plant (ETP) at Carrum was in the planning process, Gunnamatta was not the preferred option for the disposal of the effluent.

The original proposal was to extend a pipe into Port Phillip Bay at Carrum. This option was cancelled, perhaps as a result of two reasons: The MMBW decided that it was environmentally inappropriate; the building and construction unions placed a black ban on the construction until a better option was found.

The remote and, then, unpopulated Gunnamatta beach area was decided upon. In the early 1970s Gunnamatta was accessible by a long, unmade road which was often blown out by sand drifts.

Some foresight, rather than cost cutting in the engineering, might have prevented the outfall being built so as to spill onto a beach in what has since become one of Victoria’s most visited national parks.

Evidence of governmental baulking on the issue can also be seen in recent changes to the EPA’s licence.

The original licence contains a clause which might be perceived as recognition of the inadequacy of the original structure.

It calls for the licence holder to “undertake and complete an investigation and consultation program, to evaluate treatment, re-use and outfall extension options to improve environmental performance” by June 30, 1998.

The EPA has since changed that condition to give Melbourne Water until October this year for the plan, and 2002 for the start of construction of any improvements.

The Clean Ocean Foundation says it’s up to peninsula people to ensure the “snooze button” isn’t hit once again, and that the future option chosen in October is not another Band Aid.