Tenterfield Shire Council (TSC) has been fined $50,000 for the discharge of more than 1.3 million litres of untreated sewage onto private land, an unknown quantity of which then entered Tenterfield Creek.
The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) welcomed the Armidale Local Court’s decision on Tuesday, October 16 to convict and fine the council. The conviction relates to an incident in June 2016 when a blockage in a sewer main caused around 1,320,000 litres of raw sewage to discharge.
“This was a huge amount of raw, untreated sewage – more than a million litres – discharged via a manhole straight onto private land – some of which then entered Tenterfield Creek,” EPA Regional Director North Adam Gilligan said.
The EPA prosecuted the council for water pollution under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997. TSC pleaded guilty to the charge. In sentencing the council, the court found that the offence was in the range of moderate-to-high seriousness.
In addition to the $50,000 fine the court ordered council to pay the EPA’s investigation and legal costs and to place advertisements in two newspapers and in their own newsletter publicising its conviction and fine.
Mr Gilligan said council’s monitoring system picked up significant discrepancies in the sewage flow volumes over several days but no action was taken for four days, although TSC disputes this.
“The court found that Tenterfield Shire Council did not follow its own Asset Management Plan and did not manage known major risks,” Mr Gilligan said.
Back in 2000 council was also convicted for a water pollution offence relating to the discharge of 300,000 litres of sewage into Tenterfield Creek.
As a result of the EPA’s investigation into this pollution incident, it said it is working with council to improve its sewage monitoring system and prevent a similar incident occurring in the future.
TSC chief executive Terry Dodds said council regrets the sewer main blockage which led to the overflow from a sewer manhole and subsequent spillage of diluted effluent over a length of rural land into Tenterfield Creek near council’s Sewage Treatment Plant.
The court fine, council’s legal costs and EPA’s legal costs are all expected to be covered by council’s insurer. Council has, however, put aside money in its 2018/19 water services capital budget for the retrofitting of devices at a number of manholes along its largest trunk sewer main to provide early warning of blockages and possible overflow potential.
“Such technology is in the process of being implemented now,” Mr Dodds said.
He said action was taken over the four days during the spill period, however not all evidence relating to this was heard in court.
“The trunk main blockage that occurred was the first of its type in this shire, certainly in the last 27 years, and risks were otherwise dealt with in line with acceptable industry practice.
“Council pleaded guilty only to the strict liability offence of having polluted a public waterway, and was well-prepared to defend any assertion of insufficient maintenance or inadequate follow-up response to the spill.”
However there was no need for further court time, he said, in view of council agreeing with EPA to put in place an early warning system to mitigate any future trunk main blockage.
“The evidence provided to the court relating to this fine was for the purposes of helping the court to understand the context of circumstances and to determine the extent of fine to apply.”
When asked what TSC has learned from the incident, Mr Dodds said it demonstrated that risks, however inconceivable, can change along with best means for dealing with them.
“Council is now certainly better equipped to deal with similar issues, should such eventuate in the future.”
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