Please get the facts right!

A Geelong Advertiser Perspective issued Friday 19 August 2011


It was not so much an actual leak in a sewer pipe beneath the Anglesea River that excited the headline writers this week.

Rather, it was accusations of secrecy and the inference of a conspiracy that gave oxygen to banners such as "River spill outrage", "Anglesea River spill angers residents: Waste worry" and "Secret sewer leaks not on".

Add a totally unrelated photo of dead fish, a man crouching beside yellow-tinged water under the heading "River sludge" – it was actually pollen – and an unfortunate act of political opportunism and you have media manna from heaven.

The transparency/openness angle was particularly intriguing.

One editorial writer asked why residents were not informed until a bright yellow and brown substance (pollen) was sighted a week after the leak was detected, thundering: "Public safety demands this sort of information be made readily available to the community."

Public safety, in fact, was not at risk.

Water samples taken from seven different locations upstream and downstream from the site showed a maximum E. coli reading slightly above the recommended level – 2,900 organisms per 1,000 mL against 1,000. By comparison, raw sewage is more than 1,000,000.

Within 48 hours, the reading was significantly below, with all other readings below the safe level.

These figures were made available, but not published. Nor were details about what the pipe was actually carrying – 85 per cent recycled water and 15 per cent domestic sewage (not the more dangerous chemical waste, as suggested).

Because there was no health risk to the community, the low and localised levels of E. coli, the substantial recycled water component and the dilution effect of a free flowing river, warning signs were erected around the leak site only.

Should they have been placed further afield? Not in the view of our people on the ground based on the prevailing circumstances because, I, repeat there was no health risk.

Barwon Water officers also spoke to a number of river users that day, including a business operator, school group and people nearby. It also notified immediately agencies such as the EPA, Surf Coast Shire, Corangamite CMA and Department of Sustainability and Environment.

While several people have strongly criticised Barwon Water's performance, others have commended the corporation for its management of the issue.

There was no attempt to keep the leak "secret"  – warnings signs were erected as soon as the leak was detected; Barwon Water personnel advised people downstream and notified various agencies; and staff were in numbers at the site.

Barwon Water's charter is to protect the health of the community; it is the creed by which we have operated in the past and will adhere to in the future.

Similarly, inferences of collusion or inaction by the EPA are totally unfounded. The agency acts independently and has a robust regime for enforcing standards. Individuals, companies and authorities, Barwon Water included, must abide by those standards.

When they do not, they face the consequences – and those consequences can be severe.

I have no intention of offering up lame excuses for the leak. It occurred, and such events will continue to occur with a $1.9 billion asset base that includes 5,700 kilometres of pipes over 8,100 square kilometres.

They are a fact of life. How we manage those assets is through ongoing replacement, multi-million investments in new infrastructure and operational staff who work 24/7 under often trying conditions.

As an aside, Barwon Water performs extremely well in terms of sewer main breaks and chokes, according to the latest national performance report for urban water utilities published by the National Water Commission.

Our focus now is to repair the Anglesea leak using all the knowledge and expertise at our disposal. It will not be easy, but it will be undertaken as quickly as possible with little to no inconvenience.

Like the local media, Barwon Water's role is to serve the regional community. It is a responsibility we take seriously – and that's a fact!

By Roger Lowrey, Chairman