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Byron Shire
May 9, 2021

Byron Council says ‘no Belongil cover-up’

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Hans Lovejoy

The NSW Environment Protection Agency (EPA) have dismissed claims by residents that the pumping of water from a Council water pump excavation in Byron Bay resulted in a large-scale pollution and fish kill event in the Belongil Creek in late February 2019.

In March, The Echo reported that ‘mystery surrounds a large fish-kill event following unknown pollution entering Belongil Creek.’

Staff at the time believed it could be a ‘natural phenomenon associated with Council’s recent opening of the estuary to the ocean which was necessary because of high water levels associated with ex-tropical cyclone Oma and king tides’.

Staff say that after an internal investigation they ‘believe there has been no misconduct and certainly no cover-up.’

But an analysis of the Milton Street gutter by Southern Cross University’s Environmental Analysis Laboratory shows iron, aluminium, manganese, and sulfur deposits. Resident Matthew Hartely, who paid for the tests, said it indicates acid sulfate. 

Like nothing seen in over 20 years

Mr Hartely told The Echo the pollution was like nothing he had seen in over 20 years living near the creek. 

Local cyber-investigator Dan Halpin also believes there is much more to the story, telling The Echo that the water pumped from Council’s excavations on Milton Street may have been highly contaminated acidic water out of acid-sulfate soils, which then entered the creek and caused discolouration and the fish kill.

Halpin says, ‘After there was a fish kill, the creek was mysteriously opened up to discharge the water’.

‘There could have been a cover up,’ he says, ‘whereby the authority that provides development consent is also the investigator into the alleged pollution’.

EPA won’t investigate

The response from the EPA when he approached them was underwhelming, he said.

No plans to investigate

An EPA spokesperson told Halpin via email there were no plans to investigate as the alleged polluting occurred too long ago to be investigated. They said, ‘We require proof beyond reasonable doubt to progress a matter’.

‘It would not be an efficient use of public funds to allocate significant resources to the investigation given the low probability of success’.

Regarding the discolouration of the creek, the EPA replied to Halpin, ‘Although aluminium and manganese and iron were detected, the lack of other metals typically associated with acid-sulfate soil runoff were not present… Iron bacteria are naturally occurring micro-organisms appearing as a slimy reddish-brown stain or substance in your local waterway. Iron bacteria live in streams, lakes, canals, and rivers and generally grow in slow-moving water with high amounts of iron. They are commonly found in streams fed by groundwater and around stormwater outlets’.

Halpin adds, ‘Water testing undertaken by the EPA appears to have been after the Belongil was opened to the sea, flooding and diluting the estuary; as such the data cannot be conclusive. Experts advise that iron bacteria contamination of the waterway would be highly unlikely in winter particularly of the scale witnessed. Has the EPA requisitioned data from the excavation works alleged to have been the cause of the pollution event?’

Works were conducted in accordance with the REF and management plans

Council’s director infrastructure services Phil Holloway said that works on the Milton Street upgrade ‘were conducted in accordance with the REF and management plans’.

‘For this reason, and to again demonstrate Council’s commitment to complete openness and transparency, Council will refer this matter to the EPA, including all the allegations made on social media, for their consideration.

‘We have nothing to hide and welcome an independent investigation into this matter,’ Mr Holloway said.

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