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Issue # 1422      5 August 2009

And not a drop worth drinking

In NSW, serious long-term pollution of the state’s waterways by the private sector, with the assistance of sympathetic conservative governments, has recently been revealed.

Doctors in the Blue Mountains town of Lithgow have signed a joint letter protesting at the local council’s approval of a proposal to double the amount of water currently being pumped from the nearby Clarence Colliery coal mine for use in the Wallerawang power station, after which the water is pumped into the Cox’s River, from which the town draws its water supply.

Over the past two years the river’s water has been found to have exceeded the safety limit for aluminium on six occasions, and for iron once. A NSW health bulletin revealed that the nickel content is several times greater than the current guideline for drinking water. A University of NSW study found evidence of arsenic, copper, boron and fluoride in the river water, far in excess of recommended safety guidelines. Close to the power station the level of copper was 30 to 50 times greater than naturally occurring levels, and boron was present at 25 times the level found upstream. The amount of fluoride was in excess of safety guidelines for drinking water. The downstream level was between 17 and 50 times greater than upstream, and likely to be toxic to the river’s marine life.

Residents frequently complain about the quality of the water, and rates of heart disease and cancer in Lithgow exceed the state average by 20 percent. In 2006, volunteers testing the Cox’s River water drew the attention of the Sydney Catchment Authority to alarming levels of metal contamination.

The Authority warned the Minister for the Environment and Climate change, Bob Debus. Despite this, the state government awarded Delta Electricity, the private company operating the power station, and the coal company Centennial Coal, with an environmental “green globe” award for water recycling.

In 2007, Delta Electricity was fined $397,000 for dumping 6,500 tonnes of salt into the water, and the company was made to reduce some of its discharges. However, it is still not required to measure the discharge quantities of many of the toxic substances, and for certain metals there is no limit to the quantities that may be discharged.

Carmel Tebbutt, NSW Minister for the Environment, recently declared proudly: “The NSW government has the strictest environmental licensing system in Australia. It is comprehensive and has strong deterrents, with breaches punishable by up to $5 million or seven years jail”.

However, in 2007 an audit of water quality in the Sydney water catchment found that “nearly 60 percent of the water quality parameters exceeded (official) guideline values at 40 percent of locations”. The implication of these findings is not only that the damage to the water quality has been understated, but also that the privatisation of water quality testing has been a failure. The former Sydney Water Board had its own water testing facilities, but these were disbanded many years ago.

The reason for the failure of the water quality in Sydney and other parts of the state lies in the government’s reverence for the private sector, and its determination to privatise as many areas of government activity as possible. This is nowhere more evident than in its relationship with the private power corporations, who are responsible for the major part of Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions, but who are also now considering mounting claims for compensation for any future costs they will incur as a result of the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme.

The nation is facing a vast crisis in terms of its access to adequate supplies of clean fresh water, and yet the water we do have is being squandered or polluted. The southern regions around the Murray-Darling basin, which contain our major food growing areas, are drying out. Drought is ravaging 65 percent of NSW and 95 percent of Victoria. Melbourne’s biggest water dam is down to 17 percent of its total capacity.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to privatise the UK’s water services was one of the initiatives that led to her political overthrow. In Australia, governments of both the major parties have served the interests of the private sector, with disastrous consequences in many crucial areas, including our access to fresh clean water.

Clean water is crucial for life. Anyone that interferes with our access to it will inevitably incur the wrath of the public, and will sooner or later be thrown into the political wilderness. In Australia that can’t be soon enough.

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