Richmond Valley Council has been hit with an $8,000 fine for failing to immediately notify the state government after a sewage overflow recently which spilt more than 12 kilolitres or untreated sewage into the Evans River.
Council’s general manager says the decision will be appealed, and has taken the unusual step of issuing a media statement defending its actions over the overflow from the Evans Head sewage reticulation system in March.
In the statement, GM John Walker also puts the boot into the EPA, accusing it of trying to ‘show how tough it can be’.
But it is not the first time the council has landed in hot water with the EPA over a similar incident.
The EPA says that because the council took 31 hours to notify the agency of the incident, it was in breach of Section 148 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997. (The law requires immediate notification of pollution incidents which cause or threaten material harm to the environment.)
The agency’s north coast manager Brett Nudd said the overflow was discovered at 7.45am on 2 March, but council officers didn’t inform the EPA until after 3pm the following day.
Mr Nudd said that council estimated that 12.7 kilolitres of untreated sewage was discharged into the river, and yet did not take any samples of the river at the time.
‘It was only after the EPA was notified that any water quality sampling was undertaken,’ he said.
‘This delay was the result of internal miscommunication and council’s poor communication procedures and protocols,’ Mr Nudd said.
He said it followed a similar incident in March last year in which council failed to immediately notify the EPA of a system failure at the Evans Head waste water treatment plant, resulting in an official caution being issued by the EPA.
‘The EPA has been advised that council staff patrolled the area to prevent public exposure to the raw sewage and that tidal exchange quickly dissipated the overflow,’ he said.
Council’s CEO John Walker said in a statement hat he was dissatisfied at the EPA’s ‘handling’ of the overflow incident and also disputed the EPA’s ‘linking of two events’.
Mr Walker said council was of the understanding the first (overflow) incident was ‘not reportable because there was no material harm to the environment’.
He said council was ‘very disappointed’ the overflow occurred but ’regretfully, and due to circumstances beyond council’s control, notification of the sewerage overflow to our controllers was delayed – a result of a specific component failure which went undetected’.
He said that as soon as council staff became aware of the situation, ‘immediate action was taken to ensure the safety of the public, as well as the remediation of the affected area’.
‘Thankfully, there has been no apparent environmental harm, nor evidence to suggest any adverse effects to public health as a result of the incident,’ Mr Walker said.
In the statement, Mr Walker is scathing of the EPA.
He said he was ‘disappointed with the EPA’s approach to this matter, particularly when after asking officers what they would have done to help if Council notified them immediately, to which the answer was “nothing”’.
‘I can assure the community we care more about our environment than a bureaucrat from Sydney,’ Mr Walker said.
‘Council staff reacted properly to the incident except for reporting immediately to the EPA. As explained, we were let down by a system failure.
‘Good working relationships are a two-way street and I would have much preferred the EPA to offer more on-ground support rather than just issuing media releases to show how tough it can be,’ Mr Walker said.