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Government agencies need to come clean on NSW water
November 17, 2013
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Water supply: If there is a problem, the public has a right to know.
Water supply: If there is a problem, the public has a right to know. Photo: Dominic O’Brien
Water is the very lifeblood of our existence. If something is amiss with the water supply, we deserve to know. In December, when the residents of Botany became ill and dizzy after drinking tap-water, they were told by Sydney Water that the contamination was due to the bitumen used to line the pipes. Not convinced, they collected samples of the water for analysis and sent them to a scientist, Dr Christopher McRae, at Macquarie University. The Sun-Herald reported his findings.

McRae, who has a PhD in chemistry, concluded that the cause of the contamination was probably not bitumen. Sydney Water admitted it had never looked inside the pipe it blamed for the problem. But the head of NSW Health, Professor Wayne Smith, responded by telling staff to ”go for the jugular” in attacking McRae. Smith accused McRae of being alarmist. But if he believes McRae’s results are exaggerated, he should make public the countervailing evidence.

If this were a one-off incident, it would be unfortunate, but not of major concern. But it is not a one-off. A pattern has emerged of secretiveness and intimidation in the state’s environmental protection agencies. According to a survey in the report State of the NSW Public Sector, a high percentage of staff at the Environment Protection Authority have witnessed bullying at work. Of the 69 per cent of staff who took part in the survey, 32 per cent said they had witnessed workplace bullying in the past 12 months.

As for secrecy, last month The Sun-Herald revealed it had taken 20 years for a report to come to light that detailed the possibility of mercury leaking from an Orica plant at Botany. Earlier this year, residents exasperated by the inertia of the EPA engaged their own expert, Andrew Helps, to check for potential off-site mercury contamination from Orica’s former Chlor-Alkali plant. He found a significant level of heavy metals, including mercury.

When the EPA then did its own testing and told residents the results were below residential health investigation levels, Helps disagreed. He questioned the interpretation of the results as did other experts, saying the results had been understated. The response of the EPA was to unfairly accuse Helps of presenting ”alarmist misinformation”. Internal emails obtained by Fairfax Media under freedom of information laws have revealed repeated errors by the Office of Environment and Heritage laboratory that grossly under-measured the true levels of metal contamination at the Hillsdale site.

Government transparency is not faring well in NSW. The Premier’s office should scrutinise the relationships between Sydney Water, NSW Health and the EPA, and ask these questions: why did the head of NSW Health react so poorly to a scientist’s report? Why did Sydney Water do the same? Why was the EPA so evasive? Why is there bullying at the EPA? In summary, why is there so much evasion by government agencies obsessed with protecting their own reputations?

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