Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Professional Influence and Public Effluent', Australian Society, May 1989, pp71-72.

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

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The battle over sewage disposal has been going on in Sydney since the mid-nineteenth century. It is a battle between bureaucrats, who have sought to control the decision-making process, and large numbers of beach-users, who have fought for clean beaches and unpolluted waterways. It is true, as Gay Davidson pointed out in the last issue of Australian Society, that the Sydney Water Board has always been constrained financially because ratepayers have complained about rate increases. But this is only part of the story. For one hundred years Sydney people have been assured by the Water Board that the sewerage schemes that their limited rates paid for would not cause pollution. Ratepayers have never been given a properly informed choice.

The first ocean outfall in Sydney was built amidst an uproar of public controversy. Sir James Martin, Chief Justice of NSW leading the Sanitary Reform League along with two Sydney newspapers campaigned long and hard against the proposal to discharge raw sewage from the headland north of Bondi Beach. They warned that the nearby beaches would become polluted and pushed for the utilisation of sewage as fertiliser. The colonial government tried to settle the controversy by having an eminent English engineer, W.C.Clark, review the proposal. Clark claimed that the neighbouring beaches would not be polluted because the ocean current would carry the pollution away and because the sewage would be so diluted. Ironically, it was the Sydney Morning Herald which jumped to the defence of the engineers, claiming that Martin and those like him were presumptuous in claiming to know better than the experts.

The Bondi outfall was completed in 1889 and complaints of pollution were being received within five years. From that time on, each new outfall was opposed by people fearing pollution and each time the engineers in the Public Works Department and the Water Board used their professional prestige and their expert predictions to override public commonsense and claim that the outfalls would not pollute the beaches. When the beaches did become polluted they denied it blaming passing ships and beach-goers themselves.

The engineers predicted sewage would not come onto the beaches because of the southerly ocean current and then when beaches did become polluted, they argued that pollution could not have come from the outfalls because the southerly current would have carried it away. They used floats to 'scientifically' assess the direction that sewage would travel in but they weighted the floats so that they would not be influenced by the wind, even though they knew and almost everyone else knew that the wind was the primary influence on the direction of travel of the sewage field which, being lighter than seawater, lay on the surface.

The Water Board and their consultants still use weighted floats and still rely on the southerly current, which is sometimes onshore and sometimes northerly. Their aim in these experiments and investigations is not so much to make accurate predictions about the performance of their sewage disposal projects as to construct a knowledge base from which to convince the public, the politicians and the regulatory authorities that their projects will behave as claimed.

The engineering and scientific data that is collected in this way is backed up by a carefully planned public relations strategy which manipulates language and imagery to create favourable impressions. Gay Davidson provides us with some good examples in her article. She tells us that Bob Wilson, managing director of the Water Board, says that toxic wastes are prevented from getting into the system. Bob Wilson does not tell us that the Water Board's new Trade Waste Policy (like the old one) charges fees for industry to put toxic substances into the system. (For example, if a company puts mercury down the sewers in a very dilute form it only needs to pay $5000 per tonne. If it is much more concentrated in may cost as much as $200 per kilogram. Mercury costs twice as much as cyanide and pesticides and five times as much as cadmium)

Bob Wilson leads us to believe, if reported correctly by Davidson, that the sewerage will be getting primary and some secondary treatment before it is discharged through the new deepwater outfalls. In fact, the treatment supplied by the Water Board's treatment plants does not even provide full primary treatment. Full primary treatment should remove 60-65% of suspended solids. The sewage going out the deepwater outfalls will have less than 20% of suspended solids removed under present proposals.

Wilson tells us that it is the State Pollution Control Commission's job to increase discharge standards but he does not tell us about the role the Water Board played in blocking SPCC attempts to tighten up discharge standards in 1987. He tells us that it is up to the public to decide whether it wants to pay $2-3 billion for secondary treatment but in the same paragraph the public is again being told that the pollution problem will be virtually solved without spending that money. The sewage will be diluted by 1000 parts of seawater to one part of sewage and only come onto the beaches on three to five days a year, we are told. Even the Water Board's own reports don't back this gross exaggeration up.

The Water Board clearly does not want the decision on whether Sydney implements secondary treatment left up to the public at all. If they did then they would be completely frank and open about the uncertainties inherent in predicting the performance of unique and innovative engineering projects. They would not exaggerate or gloss over important details. They would not inflate the amount of rates that a $2 -$3 billion loan, paid off over a number of decades, would necessitate and thereby attempt to frighten ratepayers into opposing secondary treatment.

Bureaucracies, such as the Water Board, dislike interference from outside because it weakens the control an organisation has over its activities and the deployment of its 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.

Engineers are keen to protect their professional autonomy and tend to view public debate of their designs as an undue interference. 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.

The combined effect of professional ideologies and bureaucratic sensitivities works against the cause of increased public participation in decisions of public concern and ensures that the reluctance on the part of ratepayers to pay for public services is taken advantage of by decision-makers.