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No leaks: Sewage report to be censored after long fight

- MILES KEMP

ONKAPARING­A Council has had a court win against its own ratepayers, after a legal challenge to block the public release of informatio­n included in a report about a Sellicks Beach sewage leak.

The extraordin­ary legal battle in the District Court pitted the council’s team of external lawyers against the then Onkaparing­a Residents Associatio­n chairman John Houlahan. Mr Houlahan used free legal help to battle the council for two years to find out – via the report – why the EPA was not told of the leak for up to 14 months and what had caused the leak.

In the District Court this week, Judge Paul Slattery overturned a decision by the South Australian Ombudsman to release an edited copy of the report, instead deciding to edit the report himself for release. The council had also offered to release an edited copy.

“I find that there are cogent reasons to depart from the decision of the Ombudsman, although it is my view that a redacted copy of the report should be made available to Mr Houlahan,’’ Judge Slattery said in his judgment.

The judge was critical of the Ombudsman’s office decision, and also of the quality of the council report into why the leak happened, partly because it identified staff who allegedly did the wrong thing.

Judge Slattery said the council knew about the sewage leak at the Sellicks Beach reserve – which also affected neighbouri­ng properties – as early as May 2011. The EPA was told in July 2012.

“In my view, a significan­t matter here is the need for the public to be informed about matters of public health,’’ the judge said.

“An example is that every parent would wish to protect a child from contact with potentiall­y harmful waterborne bacteria. This hardly needs to be stated, it is so obvious.’’

A council spokesman said: “The council’s pursuit of these proceeding­s has proved to be entirely justified.”

Onkaparing­a council has refused to say how much the case has cost ratepayers.

Mr Houlahan said the as- sociation had been most concerned about the council’s failure to tell the EPA about the leak between May 2011 and June 2012.

The sewage leak was from the council-operated Sellicks Beach Waste Water Treatment Plant, which treats the waste in a septic system.

Judge Slattery said he would not release the full report because the staff members named in it had thought they were providing informatio­n in confidence and might be reluctant to give informatio­n in future. miles.kemp@news.com.au

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