Hard to swal­low

Can drought-prone Aus­tralia af­ford to turn up its nose at re­cy­cled wa­ter any longer? Selina Mitchell re­ports

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health -

TO some, the idea of drink­ing re­cy­cled sewage is akin to eat­ing cock­roach-chip ice cream — un­think­able, even if shown to be safe. Oth­ers in po­si­tions of power, such as Queens­land’s Pre­mier Peter Beat­tie, are so des­per­ate for a so­lu­tion to dwin­dling dam sup­plies they are will­ing to risk com­mu­nity dis­gust and im­ple­ment the op­tion any­way, us­ing treated ef­flu­ent to eke out di­min­ish­ing rain­wa­ter re­serves.

All pro­tag­o­nists are keen for sci­en­tific ev­i­dence to back their ar­gu­ments — and now they feel they have their am­mu­ni­tion.

Aus­tralian health and science au­thor­i­ties have is­sued a draft of the world’s first safety guide­lines on re­cy­cling sewage for hu­man con­sump­tion. Re­cy­cling has been tak­ing place in some ar­eas of the world for decades, but na­tional guide­lines have never been cre­ated in any of the coun­tries do­ing so.

De­tails of the draft guide­lines, re­leased re­cently, are be­ing seized on by both wa­ter ex­perts and anti-re­cy­cling cam­paign­ers as fod­der for their causes.

On the ‘‘ pro’’ side, the draft guide­lines state that it is pos­si­ble to safely re­cy­cle sewage for drink­ing pur­poses, as long as strict treat­ment and man­age­ment pro­cesses are fol­lowed.

But the guide­lines set the bar so high that they are likely to stop small, parched towns from tak­ing up the con­tro­ver­sial op­tion — an as­sess­ment anti-re­cy­clers see­ing as a win.

The guide­lines warn that the process of re­cy­cling waste wa­ter is highly com­plex and risky, and re­quires ex­pen­sive tech­nol­ogy and skills — re­sources dif­fi­cult to find among lo­cal gov­ern­ment or small util­i­ties. Anti-re­cy­cling cam­paign­ers say that the draft guide­lines, as they stand, would have ruled out the failed Toowoomba waste wa­ter re­cy­cling plan and could scut­tle pro­pos­als to aug­ment sup­plies in Can­berra and nearby Goul­burn.

Na­tional Health and Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil ( NHMRC) Wa­ter Qual­ity Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee mem­ber David Cun­liffe says the guide­lines were not de­signed as a po­lit­i­cal tool, but to out­line how to strip sewage wa­ter of con­tam­i­nants such as viruses and chem­i­cals so it is safe to drink.

‘‘ It can be done, but it is a chal­lenge,’’ Cun­liffe said. ‘‘ It is naive to think in­ci­dents won’t oc­cur, but con­trolled and timely re­sponses will en­sure in­ci­dents don’t present a health risk.‘‘The ex­per­tise re­quired will make it dif­fi­cult for lo­cal gov­ern­ments and small util­i­ties to do — it is not an approach for a small town or util­ity and it will be a chal­lenge even for the largest util­i­ties or gov­ern­ments.’’

Bris­bane will be­come the first Aus­tralian town or city to use re­cy­cled sewage for drink­ing by the end of next year, with re­cy­cled wa­ter to be pumped to the Wiven­hoe Dam through the $1.7 bil­lion west­ern cor­ri­dor pipe­line, the big­gest project of its kind in Aus­tralia. De­spite vot­ing against a re­cy­cled wa­ter pro­posal last year, Toowoomba will get re­cy­cled wa­ter from that pipe­line.

The guide­lines may be in draft form and open for pub­lic com­ment, but the Queens­land, Goul­burn and ACT au­thor­i­ties can­not wait un­til the fi­nal ver­sion is re­leased: they need to know now how they could safely im­ple­ment a scheme now. Each of th­ese groups is re­ly­ing heav­ily on the draft.

Along with a com­pli­cated 12-step sys­tem for the safe op­er­a­tion of wa­ter re­cy­cling fa­cil­i­ties, the guide­lines pro­vide key prin­ci­ples for re­cy­cling. Th­ese in­clude that the pro­tec­tion of pub­lic health is paramount and should never be com­pro­mised, any at­tempt to aug­ment sup­plies must have com­mu­nity sup­port, and util­i­ties which take on the task must have the re­sources to prop­erly meet the chal­lenge and their staff must have ap­pro­pri­ate skills and train­ing.

While the draft fails to de­tail a spe­cific set of tech­nolo­gies which must be used to treat the wa­ter, the prin­ci­ples do state that ev­ery sys­tem must use mul­ti­ple bar­ri­ers, such as mem­brane fil­tra­tion, re­verse os­mo­sis and ad­vanced ox­i­da­tion, as none is per­fect and each has strengths and weak­nesses (see ta­ble).

Also, in­dus­trial waste wa­ter must be mon­i­tored and man­aged un­der sep­a­rate pro­grams. And each scheme must be sub­ject to reg­u­la­tory sur­veil­lance.

The guide­lines all but rule out the di­rect aug­men­ta­tion of sup­plies — where re­cy­cled wa­ter en­ters the drink­ing sup­ply sys­tem with­out go­ing through an in­ter­me­di­ary re­ceiv­ing body of wa­ter, such as a river or reser­voir. There is only one case of di­rect potable re­use in the world, and that scheme — in Namibia — was de­vel­oped in the 1960s.

The scope for as­sess­ing wa­ter qual­ity and

Pic­ture: Ray Strange

Not con­vinced: Peter Col­lignon ques­tions the wis­dom of turn­ing sewage into drink­ing wa­ter

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.