Citation: This was published as Sharon Beder, The Sydney Experience, in A.M.Cooke, ed., Sydney's Strangled Sewerage System, ANZAAS, 1990.

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

Sharon Beder's Other Publications


Sydney's beaches and rivers are regularly polluted by sewage from the city's sewage outfalls and from stormwater drains. The sewage flowing into ocean bathing waters is either raw or inadequately treated. Eighty-five to ninety percent of suspended solids in raw sewage pass through the treatment process at the three major outfalls and into the ocean. Sixty tonnes of grease are discharged through the three main ocean outfalls each day. Eight tonnes of this is described as beach grease because it reaches the beach - 60% of beach grease is of industrial and commercial origin. The grease agglomerates into particles and balls containing faecal matter and pathogens. Grease balls released through the new deepwater outfalls, which are due to be commissioned over the next couple of years, would come to the surface immediately (whether or not the main body of sewage remained submerged) and be blown onshore. These grease particles may pose an acute public health hazard.[1]

Monitoring of beaches by the NSW Health Department over the past few years has shown beaches to be unsatisfactory for swimming for a considerable proportion of time[2] and recent reports show that Beachwatch inspectors are unable to judge whether the beaches are polluted using visual indicators (see figure 1). A recent epidemiological survey of 3000 beachgoers found that 1 in 3 people who went swimming in these conditions got sick within 10 days. Those who swam in "polluted" water were 35% more likely to get sick than those who swam in less polluted waters and 55% more likely to get sick than those who did not swim at all.[3]

Pollution is often worse after rain. When it rains sewers overflow into stormwater drains and into the environment causing large amounts of raw sewage and industrial waste to pour into Sydney's waterways. It is estimated that 30 percent of the total annual load of suspended solids is lost to the system because of sewer overflows, amounting to some 45,700 tonnes per year.[4] In addition raw sewage which reaches the ocean plants sometimes bypasses the treatment process because there is too much flow for the plants to handle.

Most of Sydneyês liquid industrial waste is disposed of via the sewers. It makes up 42% of the total sewage reaching the ocean. Almost all the toxic waste contained in this flow passes through the treatment process and into the sea. This includes hundreds of tonnes of heavy metals and more than twenty tonnes of organochlorines per year.[5] This toxic waste has been accumulating in the fish life over the years and surveys have found that there are excessive amounts of mercury and a variety of organochlorines in fish caught up to 3.5 kilometres from the outfalls (see figures 2-5).

The public was only made aware of this state of affairs in early 1989 as a result of a series of media reports. The deepwater outfalls which were touted as bringing an end to beach pollution will do nothing to reduce the amount of grease, bacteria, viruses or toxic waste being discharged into the ocean.


The Clean Waters Act was introduced into NSW the year before the Water Board commissioned a feasibility study into the deepwater outfalls. The Clean Waters Regulations were established in 1972, a year later. They required that:

wastes are so discharged that the rate and volume or the nature, and concentration thereof will not adversely affect beaches...

wastes are not to be discharged into these waters
(1) unless the wastes are visually free from grease, oil and solids and free from settleable matter...

wastes are not to be discharged if the resulting concentration of wastes in the waters-
(i) is or is likely to be harmful, whether directly or indirectly, to aquatic life or water-associated wildlife;
(ii) gives rise or is likely to give rise to abnormal concentrations of the wastes in plants or animals; or
(iii) gives rise to or is likely to give rise to abnormal plant or animal growth.

Rather than using these regulations as a guideline, the Water Board requested the State Pollution Control Commission set design criteria for ocean outfalls. The resulting criteria that were formalised in 1974 after negotiation between the Board and the Commission did not reflect the intention of the Clean Waters Regulations. The criteria, known as WP-1, set bathing water standards in terms of faecal coliform and water quality standards in terms of concentrations of restricted standards. The bathing water standards require that five samples taken over 30 days have a geometric mean of less than 200 faecal coliform/100ml and a 90%ile of less than 400 faecal coliform/100ml during summer months and a much looser standard during the rest of the year. This is particularly convenient for the Water Board since their deepwater outfalls are supposed to work much better during the summer months when sewage is more likely to be trapped beneath a layer of sun-warmed water. The fact is, however, that many people use the beaches for recreation in those other months.

The use of a geometric mean is also convenient because it tends to be much lower than an average when there are some high readings.


The above example of a geometric mean shows a beach can be polluted 60% of the time and still comply with WP-1 even though this would surely not comply with the Clean Waters Regulation that wastes should not adversely affect the beaches. This use of a geometric mean contrasts with the way the Health Department uses it. The Health Department take a geometric mean of three samples taken at the same time at the same beach so that they are taking it across the beach rather than across time. This is why the Water Board statistics for beach pollution are always so much better than those of the Health Department (see figure 6). However, the Health Department has not generally published its figures.

The WP-1 criteria for restricted substances governs concentrations of a few toxic substances at the boundary of the initial dilution zone - in other words after the sewage has been diluted in the ocean. This is also very convenient for the Water Board since the deepwater outfalls will facilitate dilution in the ocean. It does not protect the marine life however since some toxic wastes bioaccumulate in the ocean and dilution just means a greater spread of toxic materials. In fact the WP-1 guidelines are so loose that thousands of tonnes of heavy metal and organochlorine waste would be allowed into the ocean when the new outfalls are commissioned and these guidelines have had no impact on the amounts of waste going into the ocean over the past 16 years.

Because the SPCC has not been enforcing strict limits on the Water Board for the quality of the effluent going into the ocean, there has been no pressure on the Board to in turn put strict limits on industry on what they put can put into the sewers. Trade waste agreements have been negotiated between the Board and individual industries with some firms such as ICI being allowed to put mercury and HCB into the sewers whilst these substances were officially banned by the Boardês Trade Waste Policy.[6]

Nor have the WP-1 guidelines been changed despite the accumulating evidence of fish contamination that has resulted from the discharge of toxic waste into the ocean. Rather that evidence has been covered up. In 1973 it was discovered that marine life was being contaminated with heavy metals (see figure 8). 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.[7]

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... [8]

The EIS's also neglected to mention two other very relevant studies of contamination of fish which had been carried out by the Fisheries Research Institute of the Department of Agriculture. One showed that fish were being contaminated with mercury and the other showed they were being contaminated with dieldrin and DDT (see figures 4&5).

In 1987 the SPCC finally admitted that WP-1 was "so outdated that it cannot be scientifically justified"[9] and they attempted to change it so that summer bathing standards applied all year and so that the acceptable toxic waste concentrations were much lower. However, the revised WP-1 was blocked by the Clean Waters Advisory Committee which is composed of government appointees and representatives of several government departments and bodies. At the meeting in 1987, the Water Board and the Public Works Department objected to the new criteria because of the possibility that it would give ammunition to their opponents in the public relations battles over ocean outfalls. The Water Boardês new deepwater outfalls which were already under construction would not have had to meet the new criteria but the Board felt it would be bad for their public relations if the new standards were introduced before those outfalls were commissioned because the deepwater outfalls would not be able to meet them.[10] The revision of WP-1 was therefore shelved despite the fact that new outfalls elsewhere in the State would continue to be designed to the old criteria which were "scientifically unjustifiable".

That same Advisory Committee was given the results of the 1987 Malabar Bioaccumulation study (see figure 2) in December 1987. Despite the alarming levels of organochlorines in two of the three fish species studied, these results were kept secret from the public for more than a year. They were not even given to the Australian Underwater Federation whose members wrote to the SPCC requesting them because their members were concerned about eating these fish. It was only in 1989, when these results were leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald, that fishing bans were placed near the outfalls. (Those bans have since been lifted for recreational fishing although there has been no evidence of any improvement.)

It was only after the adverse publicity about fish contamination in 1989 that the SPCC finally placed limits on some toxic substances in Water Board licences. Until this time each license specified total volumes, a monitoring programme, the treatment process that was already in place at the particular outfall for but contained no restrictions on toxic wastes. This was possible because the ocean waters were never classified and the classification process abandoned in 1980 so the SPCC did not legally have to refer to the Clean Waters Regulations in setting licence conditions. The licenses issued in May 1989 set maximum concentrations for only five toxic substances in the effluent; mercury, chlordane, HCB, BHC and Dieldrin - those that had shown up in fish in the 1987 & 1988 bioaccumulation studies at levels exceeding the NH&MRC maximum residue limits. Other toxic substances remained unregulated. A good example of the SPCCês continued policy of not shutting the barn door till the horse has bolted.

The Water Board was also required by these licences, because of the 1989 publicity, to regularly monitor for the first time a large range of toxic substances at various points in the treatment process. The results of this monitoring are kept secret. The Board responded to requests for this information throughout 1989 with the claim that they had still not got any results.

By July 1989 the licences had been changed so that those maximum levels for the five toxic substances had become median levels. In other words they only had to be met half the time. Even then the Board was unable to tell the SPCC whether they were complying or not.[11] However an unpublished Water Board report of monitoring undertaken at Malabar from July to December 1989 shows that the Board was not complying even with the median requirement (see figure 9).

At the same time the Board has not been complying with licences for many of its other treatment plants. The Water Board admitted in an internal report in 1989 that more than half of its inland treatment plants violated 1988/89 licence conditions. These conditions are generally expressed as 50 and 90 percentiles and therefore non-compliance cannot be interpreted as one off events. The report concluded that this was "an unacceptable level of compliance". Fifteen of its thirty six plants have inadequate capacity for the sewage flow which reaches them. Apart from capacity deficiencies the report identified hydraulic problems, equipment unavailability or process upset and "lack of effective management in implementing plant upgradings".[12]

The report also noted that because there was no upper bound pollutant concentration specified in the licences but only statistical requirements to be met, it was difficult to know how well treatment plants were complying before the duration of the licence had expired. Moreover, licences often had surprising inconsistencies. For example for some plants the specified maximum wet weather flows was lower than the specified dry weather flows. For others where maximum wet weather flows and dry weather flows were almost the same fewer stages of treatment were required in wet weather.


It is clear that Sydneyês sewerage system is in a mess and its management and regulation has been grossly mishandled. We are now faced with a bill that runs into the billions of dollars to fix it up yet there is a reluctance to learn from past mistakes. If we spend all this money on upgrading facilities without examining the cause of the problem then we will run into similar problems down the track. Similarly just introducing new legislation is not going to solve the problem unless we can be sure the legislation will be used and it hasnêt been in the past. How can we trust billions of dollars of works to bureaucracies that have performed so badly in the past?

The Water Board has shown itself in the past to be more concerned with protecting its image using public relations and coverups than with performing in such a way that they would deserve a good image. Has this changed? It seems that rather than getting on and fixing the existing problems it is spending its money and devoting its public relations machine to portraying itself as a world innovator in sewerage technology. Well proven technology is already available for them to begin construction of secondary treatment at the main outfalls immediately but instead they are trialling numerous new technologies, each trial announced in a burst of publicity. Can we afford to stand around and watch the waterways deteriorate whilst the Water Board grandstands as a world leader in sewerage technology?

Water Board money goes into educational kits for schools to tell the Water Board version of the truth and funds for groups to run environmental seminars. This spreading around of Water Board money to win friends and influence people is about to take a quantum leap with the recent announcement that the money collected from industry paying Trade Waste charges will be distributed in grants for restoration, research and education in a whole range of environmental areas not necessarily associated with sewage pollution. This may be good for public relations but surely this money should be used to control and minimise toxic waste pollution that occurs because of trade waste going into the sewers; extra inspectors, more automatic gauges etc.

The State Pollution Control Commission has shown itself to be incapable of implementing legislation in the spirit that was intended. They too seem to be publicity driven. Licence conditions have only been tightened following adverse publicity and act more as public relations documents than real tools of regulation. They seem unconcerned about whether licence conditions are met or not. In fact they have shown themselves ready to relax licence conditions to be compatible with the ability of the Board to meet them. The government has the power to prosecute the Water Board for its failure to comply with licences under existing legislation and under the much heralded Environmental Offences and Penalties Act that is supposed to be so effective in preventing illegal pollution. It has chosen not to do so.

There obviously needs to be a complete overhaul of both the Water Board and the SPCC so that decision-making structures are reformed. The Water Board needs to be reconstituted so that its Board is democratically elected by ratepayers rather than appointed and is therefore directly accountable. The new Environmental Protection Agency also needs to be organised in the most democratic way so that public participation in decision-making is not a choice of bureaucrats but a built in part of its structure.

Given that government organisations are so concerned about their public image and only seem to act in response to adverse publicity, there is also a need for much more public scrutiny of the workings of both organisations. Essential information such as monitoring information and compliance profiles need to be made public and be easily and continuously accessible to the community and the media rather than the subject of occasional leaks or media releases by Ministers.

  1. Camp, Dresser & McKee, Review of Sydneyês Beach Protection Programme, September 1989.
  2. A.G. Bernard,'The Bacteriological Quality of Sydney's Tidal Bathing Waters', in Proceedings of Water Quality & Management for Recreation & Tourism, International Conference, IAWPRC &I AWWA, July 1988, pp46-50.
  3. Government Media Release, 4th June 1990.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., pp5-24 & 4-4.
  6. Sharon Beder, Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing, Allen & Unwin 1989, p118.
  7. Caldwell Connell, 'Reconnaissance Survey of Heavy Metal and Pesticide Levels in Marine Organisms in the Sydney Area', October 1973.
  8. MWS&DB, Environmental Impact Statement, Bondi Water Pollution Control Plant, M.W.S.&D.B.,1979.
  9. Clean Waters Advisory Committee Meeting, Business Papers, 10th September 1987.
  10. Clean Waters Advisory Committee Meeting, minutes, 10th September 1987.
  11. Steering Committee meeting, Environmental Monitoring Programme, Minutes, 12th December 1989.
  12. Water Board, 'Performance Review of Sewage Treatment Plants', July 1989, pi.