Citation: Sharon Beder, Engineering Sydney's Sewerage Pollution: Public Relations Assisted Technology, Current Affairs Bulletin, vol. 66, no. 2., July 1989, pp27-31.

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

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Over the past few months Sydney's newspapers have been full of articles on Sydney's sewerage system and the associated pollution. The public has been indignant over revelations that heavy metals and organochlorines have been accumulating to an alarming extent in marine life (up to 250 times NH&MRC maximum residue limits for seafood).[1] They have been angry that secret Health Department surveys have found that city beaches are unsatisfactory for swimming for a large proportion of the time and yet those same beaches have been declared clean and safe in Water Board annual reports. The extended ocean outfalls currently under construction at a cost of some $330 million dollars, once promoted as a total solution have come under heavy attack and are now being portrayed as part of the solution.

Yet the response to this situation by many engineers is that whilst there may be problems the whole thing has been exaggerated by an irresponsible media, fueled by misinformed greenies. A recent meeting of environmental groups with representatives of the Australian Water & Wastewater Association was recently held to allow a dialogue between the two groups. One of the reasons for this meeting was that the "Environment movement needs a source of factual information on various areas of environmental concern" and the underlying assumption of some of those present was that environmental groups were not in possession of "the facts".

The battle for the control of 'public education' about technological projects is being fought all over the world between engineers and their opponents (some of whom are also engineers). Many engineers assume (or pretend) that their "facts" are somehow more objective and truthful than those of their opposition; that they are educating the public whereas the others are appealing to their emotions.

In a recent issue of the American magazine Civil Engineering[2] it was observed that many engineers now see public education as an essential part of designs for a range of engineering projects from new roads to sewage treatment plants. A case study was given of the East Bay Municipal Utility District, Oakland, California which had hired public relations specialist to "instruct" the public on what sewers were, how they cracked when they got old and how much they would cost to repair. After five years the public supported tax increases of $400 million for sewer repairs.

This is a different situation to that which has occurred with the Sydney Water Board which has used public relations tools to convince the public that rate increases were unnecessary because their cheap solutions to pollution problems were perfectly adequate. However, the basic attitude to the public is similar in both cases. In fact, public education is a euphemism for propaganda. This comes through clearly in the words of the public information director for East Bay's programme.

We successfully educated our public because we controlled the agenda; we set the tone of discussion... In addition, we realized if we didn't educate the public someone else would. An uninformed public will always organise themselves. Finally we used our potential adversaries to our advantage. Our early efforts allowed us to co-opt potential opponents in time to enlist their help.[3]

The role of engineers in manipulating public opinion is one that needs to be recognised and discussed more fully by engineers. Many engineers portray themselves as employees coming up with solutions to fit criteria set by others within budgetary constraints that are also set by others. Yet if engineers take part in attempting to manipulate public opinion, then their claim to be removed from the decision-making process is severely damaged. If on the other hand, engineers admit that they play a very central role in the decision-making process, by selecting solutions and then selling them to their superiors, the politicians and the public, they must take greater responsibility for the consequences of those decisions.

The role of engineers in the development of Sydney's sewerage system has, in fact, been a key one both in terms of choosing disposal options and educating the public to accept them.


Sydney's first sewers, built in the mid-nineteenth century under the supervision of the city engineer, emptied directly into the harbour at Bennelong Point (where the Opera House is now). The engineer, W.B.Rider, argued that this was the best place for the discharge because there was a strong seaward current at that point which would carry the sewage away.[4]

Within twenty years, the Bennelong Point outlet as well as others subsequently built on the harbour were foul and stinking. Mud banks formed, exposing sewage to the mid-day sun and sewage floated back and forth with the tides on the surface of the water.[5] Such were the complaints from residents, local businesses and visiting ships that a Sewage and Health Board was established to solve the problem.

The Sewage and Health Board recommended in 1877, on the advice of their engineering committee, that the sewage be diverted from the Harbour. Most of it would be piped to Bondi where it would be discharged, raw, into the ocean and the sewage which drained southwards would be taken to a small sewage farm on the edge of Botany Bay, where it would be filtered through sand before being discharged into the bay. All the engineers involved in this decision, including an eminent British engineer brought over to the colony by the government, argued that the discharge of raw sewage at Bondi would not pollute the neighbouring beaches because of the southerly current and dilution in such a vast body of water.[6]

Many of Sydney's residents were not convinced. Not only did they have the polluted harbour as a standing reminder of the fallibility of the experts, but many found it hard to ignore their own experience. They had seen garbage and offal disposed of at sea come back onto the beaches. In 1880 the papers were full of letters opposing the scheme. A leading opponent to the Bondi outfall at this time was Sir James Martin, Chief-Justice of the colony. Martin was heralded as a "gallant knight" by the Sydney Illustrated News which predicted that "our beautiful beaches along the coast will become putrid, festering, fever beds".[7] Martin founded the NSW Anti-Air and Water Pollution League in 1880 and this organisation gathered together evidence, gleaned from overseas texts and engineering papers, that sewage discharged into the sea would rise to the surface and travel long distances on the wind, oxidising only slowly in the sea water.[8]

The editor of the Sydney Morning Herald defended the Board's decision to discharge the sewage into the sea at Bondi and attacked Martin for presuming to know better than the experts. In self-defence, Martin referred to the previous decision by the engineers to put the sewage into the harbour.

...So here we have main sewers leading into the harbour at Woolloomooloo Bay, Fort Macquarie, the head of Sydney Cove, the head of Darling Harbour, and Johnson's Bay, all constructed to carry off the closet matter by water. All those who opposed, or doubted the efficiency of, this sewage scheme (and I was one who opposed it twenty-five years ago) were looked upon as presumptuous in the extreme, and yet how many thousands of persons have been poisoned by these sewers during the last twenty years?...I consider myself just as much entitled to criticise and disapprove of these plans as I did those which it is intended that they shall supersede.[9]

Martin argued that if it was merely a question of what was the best way of constructing the sewers he would bow to the superior authority of the engineers.

But when coupled with this simple question of mechanics, there are further questions of filling up the harbours, polluting waters, poisoning the air, wasting the valuable fertilizing materials, and destroying public health. It appears to me that this compound question no longer remains one of engineering, but falls within the range of general observation and discussion.[10]

The Bondi outfall was completed in 1889 and within five years there were newspaper reports of complaints about the pollution of Bondi beach. In 1904 the Water Board found sewage deposited along the length of the beach when they investigated one such complaint.[11] The Board dealt with this discovery and all subsequent pollution sightings in the same way; denial, displacement of blame and a dismissal of guilt.

The Board inspector denied that the sewage came from the outfall, claiming that the ocean current would have carried it away from the beach and suggested the deposits had come from passing ships. The Board's engineer-in-chief minimised the problem by saying that even if it had come from the outfall, this only occurred occasionally and was unavoidable.[12]


By the time an ocean outfall was considered for Long Bay (Malabar) in 1908 the evidence that sewage was finding its way back onto Bondi beach from the Bondi outfall was difficult to ignore. Nonetheless the experts still claimed that the ocean currents would carry the sewage away from shore. The hydrographic surveyor for the Public Works Department, G.H.Halligan, did admit that

circumstances may occur, probably at long intervals, under which some of the putrescible matter may be deposited on the shore in the immediate vicinity of the outfall; this being an inference from the fact of sewage being occasionally found on the Bondi Beach near the present outfall.[13]

The Engineer-in-Chief of the Public Works Department however said he "would be very much surprised if any of the sewage went into Long Bay". The Water Board President said he thought the sewage would come ashore but admitted he had no expertise with sewage movements and had only based his opinion on his observations of floating matter such as seaweed.[14]

The text books and expert writings of the late nineteenth century indicate that engineers were well aware of the fact that sewage would rise to the surface of the ocean because it had a higher temperature and lower specific gravity than sea water. Moreover it was observed in the engineering texts that a prevailing wind could cause a constant surface current toward the shore.[15]

It was advised in texts that the sewage should be carried seaward as quickly as possible to avoid the sewage being washed up on the coast and suspended impurities being "carried backwards and forwards by every tide". To ensure that the sewage would be carried away, it was necessary to study the currents and tides with the use of floats. Ironically, these floats were to be kept submerged so that they would not be affected by the winds.[16]

Despite this misleading advice, it was observed by laypeople that floating matter in the sea was driven in the direction of the winds. Once the Bondi outfall was built it should also have been observable to the engineers that the sewage would travel in the direction of the prevailing winds and if that was onshore, then that is where the sewage would go. Nonetheless engineers and Water Board officials continued to cite the southerly current as being responsible for carrying the sewage away from the shore and they disregarded the evidence at Bondi, when they designed and made predictions for the Long Bay and North Head outfalls.

Ocean outfalls were the clearly preferred method of disposing of sewage amongst engineers. The ocean provided a maintenance free, cheap disposal medium and it was convenient to ignore the possibility of the environmental degradation of recreational facilities. The engineers, in predicting that the outfalls would not give rise to pollution, were able to defend a technological solution which achieved the political objectives of sewering the city at minimum cost. Environmental considerations were clearly secondary to the engineers and the authorities but not so secondary to beachgoers. The proposals could only be implemented against this background of public concern with beach pollution by exerting the authority of expertise. Yet that expertise had no foundations in superior knowledge or objectivity.

The controversy over the extent of beach pollution caused by sewage discharges and the health threats that such pollution pose has continued to the present day, despite the installation of some treatment facilities at the outfalls. Why can't this matter be resolved? It is a simple matter of observation to tell if a sewage field has come into the beach. As the sewage comes to the surface of the sea it forms a field with sharply defined edges which can be differentiated from the sea water by its discolouration. The fields can be observed to travel in one direction or another from adjacent headlands and if onshore winds are blowing it is easy to trace their course onto nearby beaches.

Moreover other signs of pollution are readily visible for anyone who wishes to look, not just experts. Floating solid material in the water and grease balls on the sand are two obvious examples. Smell and greasy feel are other good indications of the presence of sewage. In fact Water Board officials in the late 1960s and 1970's often told the public to trust their senses and that if the water looked clean then it most probably was clean.[17]

When the Board has denied pollution in the past, in the face of photographic evidence and claims from beachgoers it is difficult to understand such denials except in terms of deception of the public. And such deception has relied on the authority of expertise to get the wider public on side. This had, over the years, damaged the credibility of the Board so much that it was realised a few years ago that no-one much believed them any more when they declared a beach to be clean and Surfline was set up to restore that lost credibility.[18]

In 1965 the Water Board's consultantsrecommended that a submarine ocean outfall be eventually built at Malabar (previously Long Bay) and a couple of years later they made the same recommendation for the North Head outfall.[19] Even before the Board appointed consultants to undertake the feasibility studies in 1971, they had already started telling the public that the primary treatment plants then being constructed would not remove the brown stain and that submarine outfalls would have to be built to achieve this.[20]

The feasibility studies, which took five years to complete, were undertaken by Caldwell Connell Engineers. The feasibility studies found that submarine ocean outfalls would indeed solve the problem of beach pollution. It was predicted that faecal coliforms standards for bathing waters would be met but the fact that viruses can live far longer than faecal coliform was disregarded.

Caldwell Connell also put together the environmental impact statements for the Malabar and North Head submarine outfalls (the Bondi E.I.S was done by the Water Board) and these were displayed for public comment at the end of 1979 under the new provisions of the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. Most of the non-government submissions on the proposals were against the submarine ocean outfalls on philosophical grounds; people were opposed to the whole concept of ocean dumping and preferred to see the sewage being used as fertiliser and the water recycled.[21]

The Board rejected the calls for reuse and recycling on the grounds of economics and the submissions that raised concerns about the environmental effects of the proposed outfalls were easily dismissed because they could not hope to compete with the authority of the massive Caldwell Connell study.[22]

Nonetheless, a expert within the State Pollution Control Commission also raised questions about the performance of the outfalls and although the SPCC supported the proposals, it was not so easy to dismiss one of their own experts[23] Overseas experts were called in to legitimise the proposal. The experts, Brooks and Harremoes, had made their reputations in the field of submarine ocean outfalls and were unlikely to be averse to the concept. They were sent all the relevant data by the engineers already involved in the study and they came over to Australia for a few days.

Brooks and Harremoes supported the proposal. Their judgement was dependent on the data fed to them and even so they had one or two reservations about whether the outfalls would meet the SPCC faecal coliform standards.

With the data presented, we are unable to judge whether the consultants' predictions of frequency of shoreline impact are conservative or not. To demonstrate compliance with the 90% requirement, more careful attention to infrequent events is required.[24]

Nonetheless the Board felt it was able to tell the public that its proposals had been approved by international experts and they were granted approval by the SPCC to go ahead with the outfalls in 1983. Completion is due in the early 1990's.


The debate today over the predicted performance of the ocean outfalls is something less than free and open. Although at the heart of the argument are differences in values, priorities and philosophies; these differences are not admitted or discussed. Conflicts centre around such issues as the long term wisdom of wasting resources, nutrients and water; the value to be placed on environmental amenity; the priority given to economic growth; the short term economic benefits of allowing industry to use the sewers as a cheap disposal facility, the provision of public goods; the acceptability of low-level health risks. Rather than focussing on these issues the debate centres on the technical issues.

A discussion of technical points gives immediate advantage to the authorities who have better access to information and experts and financial resources than any of the individuals or small groups who would oppose them. Credibility with the media and with the wider public will tend to go to the experts before any uncredentialled objector, no matter how well researched and documented his or her case is. The Board plays on this and often describes opponents as "pseudo-scientific" or as having no scientific basis for their claims.[25]

Control of information ensures that the authorities can release favourable reports and withhold those that are more damaging. A number of surveys of fish which revealed that they were being contaminated by sewage effluent were withheld from the public during the 1970s and 1980s, the most recent being the 1987 Bioaccumulation Study[26] which was discussed at the beginning of his article.

Financial resources ensure better access to the media and the public through printed material, advertisements and created opportunities. Up till last summer the Water Board was spending approximately $700,000 per year on their "Clear Water, Clean Sands" campaign[27] to `educate' the public to their point of view Advertisements showing beautiful clean beaches promise an end to sewage pollution of beaches forever.

As in the past, the treatment offered by the ocean in terms of dilution, oxidation and biodegradation are emphasised.[28] Added to this artillery is the added claim that the sewage will not reach the surface and will therefore be carried off by the southerly current rather than blown on shore.[29] Market research has lead them to use key words like "natural" and "recycle". For example, an advertisement featuring a deep blue ocean says,

Introducing the world's most efficient purification plant. 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. Its the most natural process in the world.[30]

This advertisement is most ironic since we now know that they had the results of the 1987 Bioaccumulation study at the time.

The Board also seems to be preparing to meet the possibility that the ocean outfalls do not end beach pollution. A major objective of the submarine outfalls is that the sewage field will no longer be visible to the untrained eye. The SPCC has been particularly concerned to ensure this.[31] Just in case this is not enough the Board has also been emphasising that the sewage outfalls are not the only source of pollution. This follows a long tradition of blaming other sources. In the early years it was passing ships and picnickers that were responsible for the pollution of the beaches. Today, stormwater drains, beach litter, marine pollution, algae that looks like a sewage field and even gives rise to ear and eye infections like a sewage field, are all cited as sources of pollution. A Board fact sheet states

It has been estimated that anchovies off the coast of southern California produce as much faecal matter each year as 90 million people - and anchovies are only one of hundreds of species of marine life in this part of the ocean.[32]

Also the first flush of stormwater effluent when it rains has been described by the Board as having "an incredibly high bacterial count" and Board has expressed concern that it might remove sewage pollution from the beaches "for all time", only to find that there is still an unacceptable level of pollution from other sources.[33]


It is misleading for Sydney's Water Board's engineers to argue that they were merely doing their jobs in coming up with a project which would provide an incremental improvement to Sydney's beach pollution, that would fit the Board's financial constraints and that would satisfy regulatory standards and community expectations at the time. They actively promoted their project, the extended ocean outfalls, as the ultimate answer to beach pollution problems and thereby inhibited any public pressure there might have been for more funds to be made available for further treatment of the sewage. They have actively sought to influence the standards which that project had to meet[34]. They have sought to shape community expectations.

Engineers tend to view public debate of their designs as an undue interference with their professional autonomy. Engineers are rewarded status in society because of their special knowledge, skills and experience and any suggestion that this expertise does not provide a sufficient basis for decision-making or that an outsider should have equal say in those decisions clearly undermines the whole concept of expertise and threatens the prestige and self-perception of the profession.

Bureaucracies, such as the Water Board, also dislike interference from outside because it weakens the control an organisation has over its activities and resources. Over time a bureaucracy builds up skills, areas of power and establishes preferred ways of doing things. They become secretive in order to minimise the effect of outside scrutiny and to protect their autonomy. They use the expertise within their organisations to legitimise their activities and maintain their monopoly over decisions.

The combined effect of professional ideologies and bureaucratic sensitivities works against the cause of increased public participation in decisions of public concern and the reaction to any publicly expressed doubts is a defensive one. The public is locked out on the grounds of lack of expertise. The following statement was made in an American engineering magazine,

policymakers must understand that they are elected to make decisions in the public interest, not in reaction to public opinion. The idea that elected offficials are unresponsive because they refuse to be swayed by what is perceived or presented as the prevailing popular opinion should be dismissed out of hand... Instead, policymakers need to turn to seek advice from experts, whether they are from private industry, government or academia.[35]

Unfortunately, the NSW Minister for Environment, Tim Moore, seems to agree with these sentiments. He has appointed a firm of engineers, Camp, Dresser & McKee International to review the Board's "Beach Protection Programme" and has stated

Although the review has come at a time when there has been considerable public debate over the role and achievements of the Water Board and the levels of pollution of Sydney's beaches, the review is not a response to those public comments or pressures. The purpose of the review... is to ensure that the reputation of the Board and its employees is preserved and that the Board is not seen to be acting as "judge and jury" on matters of public controversy relating to its operations. [36]

Of course, this may be news to many who are counting on the review to impartially assess whether the Water Board's programme will meet the standards that public opinion demands. Apparently public opinion is there to be shaped but not necessarily listened to.


[1] M.P. Lincoln Smith, Bioaccumulation in Nearshore Marine Organisms I, SPCC, March 1989.

[2] 'The Pros and Cons of Public Education', Civil Engineering, February 1989.

[3] Audrey Penn Rodgers, 'Pubic Education: Part of the Design', Civil Engineering, Feb 1989, p77.

[4] See for example Appendix to First Yearly Report of the Commissioners for the City of Sydney, 1855.

[5] Report of the No 7 Committee Appointed by the Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board, 1875.

[6] Committee Appointed by the Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board, First Report, 1877, p15.

[7] Sydney Illustrated News, 15th May 1880.

[8] Sydney Morning Herald, 15th May 1880.

[9] Sydney Morning Herald, 19th March 1880.

[10] ibid.

[11] Daily Telegraph, 10th March 1904.

[12] ibid.

[13] Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, Disposal of Sewage From the Western, Southern, Illawarra, and Botany Districts, 1908, pp52-3.

[14] ibid., p53.

[15] for example, Henry Robinson, Sewerage and Sewage Disposal, E & F.N.Spon, London, 1896; Baldwin Latham, Sanitary Engineering, 2nd ed, E & F.N.Spon, London 1878.

[16] Robinson, op.cit., p45.

[17] for example, Daily Telegraph, 18th December 1969.

[18] Personal communication with Surfline official, December 1987.

[19] Brown & Caldwell, Design Report: Malabar Sewage Treatment Works, M.W.S.&D.B., July 1965; Brown & Caldwell, Northern Suburbs Sewerage Survey 1966-1967, M.W.S.&D.B., 1967.

[20] Sydney Morning Herald, 5th March 1970.

[21] Department of Environment & Planning, Proposed Upgrading of Ocean Outfalls for Disposal of Sewage Effluent at North Head, Bondi and Malabar: Environmental Impact Assessment., D.E.P, Sydney 1981.

[22] MWS&DB, Determining Authorities Report on Deepwater Submarine Outfalls for the Disposal of Sewage Effluent at North Head, Bondi and Malabar, April 1982.

[23] personal communication with R.Brain, 1987.

[24] Technical Report in support of Application for Approval under Section 19 for the Malabar Extended Ocean Outfall presented at the Clean Water Advisory Committee meeting, 8th September, 1983.

[25] for example, Southern Courier, 6th August 1986.

[26] Smith, op.cit.

[27] personal communication Water Board Public Relations official, 1987.

[28] for example, The Water Board, Clear Water. Clean Sand. brochure.

[29] for example, MWS&DB, Deepwater Submarine Outfalls To Protect Sydney's Beaches, brochure.

[30] Good Weekend, 12th December 1987.

[31] SPCC, Questions Relating to Proposed Malabar Outfall, MWS&DB, Sydney, June 1983.

[32] MWS&DB, 'Clear Water, Clean Sand', Background Briefing 3, 1986/7.

[33] for example, Sunday Telegraph, 25th January 1987.

[34] Sharon Beder, Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing, Allen & Unwin, 1989, chapter 2.

[35] Randy Hildebrandt, 'When Public Education Becomes Public Opinion', Civil Engineering, Feb 1989, p77.

[36] 'Letter from the Minister', Aquarian, April 1989, p1.