Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Response to a great email from Lyle Shelton

I received an excellent email from Lyle Shelton, Toowoomba City Councillor and National Party candidate for Toowoomba North for the next Queensland State election. Lyle’s email is reproduced (with permission) in full below.

It is clear that there are numerous local issues involved in Toowoomba and certainly, living 2000 kilometres away, I do not presume to be qualified to comment or pass judgement on those. Accordingly, these are presented without criticism and are accepted by myself as legitimate local points of view. However, I also accept that others may hold different (equally legitimate) points of view.

On the other hand, I do believe that I can offer some constructive response to the more technical issues that Lyle has raised. These include the relevance of existing "precedents" and the safety of drinking-water recycling. Discussion is provided below Lyle’s email. Comments (dissenting or supporting), are as always, encouraged.

From: "Lyle Shelton"
To: Stuart Khan
Subject: Re: Water Recycling blog
Date: Tue, 16 May 2006

Hi Stuart,

Thanks for your e-mail. I read your article in today's Courier Mail. I am on the public record here in Toowoomba as saying I am 80-90 per cent convinced that the technology you speak of to clean water is available. I am not a flat earth Luddite and I am more than open to science.

However, I withdrew my support from the Toowoomba Water Futures project after it became apparent to me that we were trying to sell a controversial project to a community based on false propositions. I am very upset that I was misled as a Councillor about the world-wide experience with urban recycling waste water for drinking.

False propositions included:

1. What Toowoomba is proposing is routinely done around the world. I have since discovered that there is only one plant on the planet like the one Toowoomba proposes and that is Singapore where just 1pc of their drinking water is sourced from recycled sewage. Originally, the Council did not wish to disclose to the people of Toowoomba that the percentage in Singapore was so low.

I am aware that unplanned potable reuse occurs everywhere and that this is generally seen as bad practice. A meeting of residents was told last Saturday by Council that the President of the US drinks up to 90 per cent recycled sewage water at the White House from Fairfax County’s Upper North Occoquan reservoir. If that were true, I'm sure the debate about drinking recycled sewage water would be far more advanced than it is and that George Bush and Bill Clinton would have joined hands by now to promote indirect drinking-water recycling as the solution to the world's water crises.

2. We were told there were no other options for Toowoomba. There are many viable, cost effective options that would provide arguably a much longer sustainable water supply than Water Futures (WF is based on 5000Ml of recycled water and 5000-7000Ml of water sourced from over-allocated aquifers). And I don't like being lied to about options. Peter Beattie told Malcolm Turnbull there were no other options then he turns around and says Dams located less than 40km from our dams will be secure for the long term after he builds the Mary River Dam. (Whether Beattie's plan is realistic or not is not my problem. I and the public have every right to take him at his word and he said he would have an abundance of water available by 2011. He took out a full page ad in our local paper to tell us about all this new water which we are not allowed to drink).

3. We are constantly told recycled sewage water is completely safe for drinking. Morris Iemma doesn't think so, Peter Beattie doesn't and Alan Carpenter is testing it for 10 years with the CSIRO. I'm more interested in what politicians do, not what they say. Our community has every right to question the safety of this new technology rather than be labelled as flat earth and anti-science for having reservations.

If the Council had been honest with the people of Toowoomba about this, had properly researched the other options without presenting a take it or leave it plan that vilifies anyone with a different view, I might have been persuaded to champion recycling for drinking. I probably wouldn't have become a champion though, because there are other options and I agree with the American Waterworks Association which says IPU should be an option of last resort.

Also, if the water is so pure as we are constantly told, why is it that no one in the water industry seriously advocates direct potable reuse? I can only suppose that there are unresolved issues. A large quantity of expensive, "pure" water is to be lost to evaporation. If the water industry and the science community want to convince the public about IPU for the future, they are going about it the wrong way by backing a Toowoomba scheme sold to the public on false propositions.

Tell the truth and start again, I say. Trial it somewhere so people can see it. Earn their confidence, don't ram it down their throats. This debate has ripped our community apart, it has divided friends. If it had been conducted with more openness and honesty, it may not have had to have been so acrimonious. Politicians like Beattie and Turnbull have made it worse.

Anyway, I hope the above gives you an insight in to where I'm coming from. I will be more than happy to scan your blog from time to time.




Lyle's email raises some important points.

Lyle’s first point regards the existence of precedents for drinking water recycling schemes that are relevant to the mooted plants of Toowoomba City. It is clearly true that there is no existing scheme that can be claimed to be identical to the proposed scheme. But is there an existing city that can claim to be identical to Toowoomba? Singapore may be considered to be comparable primarily in terms of two aspects only:

1) The very high degree of advanced water treatment technology involved, and

2) The very openly planned and intentional approach to drinking water recycling.

However, there are many many precedents all over the world when we get to considering actual degree of drinking-water reuse. To take a single one, consider the Mississippi River. The Mississippi originates from snow-melt in Canada and then flows north-to-south through the USA. In the north, cities such as Minneapolis withdraw drinking water, use it, and discharge downstream back into the Mississippi. As the water flows south, every other city (eg Memphis) does the same. The city of New Orleans is at the end of the line. The drinking water treatment plants and wastewater treatment plants are conventional plants similar to those common in Australia. There is no reverse osmosis, UV disinfection is relatively rare and nobody really acknowledges that this is clear-and-simple drinking-water reuse. The primary differences with Toowoomba are the lower degree of treatment, the lack of careful planning and the lack of acknowledgement.

In 2001, I was fortunate enough to undertake a research study in Berlin. There I worked with Dr Thomas Heberer at the Technical University of Berlin (Dr Heberer was amongst the first scientists in the world to identify the issue of pharmaceutical residuals in the environment). A similar situation to the Mississippi exists with the Spree River in Berlin, which in dry weather has been shown to be comprised of up to 70% treated effluent.

This type of “unplanned” drinking-water recycling is admittedly much less frequent in Australia. However, this has more to do with geography than with public health concerns. Most major Australian cities are along the coast. Thus they are at the hydrological bottom of their catchments. In other words, there are no major populations up-stream to add treated effluent to down-stream catchments. Nonetheless, there are numerous smaller examples of unplanned (or unacknowledged!) drinking-water reuse in Australia. Consider the Richmond (Western Sydney) drinking water plant that is directly downstream of treated effluent discharged from Penrith Sewage Treatment Plant. While I don’t have the figures at hand (and Sydney Water may be reluctant to release them!), it is clear to any water scientist in this city that (in dry weather) the proportion of water extracted at Richmond that is derived from treated effluent is comparable to the proportion proposed for Toowoomba.

The next point that I can address regards the difference between “direct drinking-water recycling” and “indirect drinking-water recycling”. I am very grateful for an opportunity to address this since it has clearly not been adequately (and honestly) discussed in Australia until now. There are two reasons for the preference for “indirect drinking-water recycling”:

1) By far the most significant reason has been public perception. It has been assumed (and, in fact, scientifically established) that communities are more easily able to accept the concept of indirect recycling. There is a sense of security to be gained by the idea that water returns to the environment before being extracted again for reuse. This “psychological” sense of security exists regardless of any real bearing on real advantages of the practice. However, in most circumstances, it has been politically convenient to work with it rather than against it. Singaporean authorities will not be happy with me saying so, but honestly, what is so “indirect” about that scheme? The recycled water is pumped directly into the drinking water reservoir. Unless the rate of water use can be perfectly matched (24 hours per day) with the rate of clean water production, some sort of storage reservoir is an engineering necessity.

2) Well managed water recycling requires “multiple barrier” protection. Many and diverse barriers are available. These may include numerous treatment processes with an in-built degree of redundancy (or, if you prefer, “surety”). Examples include more than a single-pass reverse osmosis system or subsequent processes such as ultraviolet treatment. “Indirect recycling” offers additional options for multiple barriers since environmental residence can act as such a barrier since any pathogens can be further removed by either underground residence (adsorption to soils and exclusion from light) or residence in surface waters (exposure to disinfecting sunlight).

I am personally prepared to stand by the contention that direct drinking-water recycling can be equally as safe as indirect drinking-water recycling. It all comes down to comprehensive risk assessment and risk management. However, since no Australian schemes are currently advocating “direct” drinking-water recycling, there is no need to convince anyone about this!

As for concerns expressed by Morris Iemma and Peter Beattie, permit me the opportunity to observe that these guys are politicians, not scientists. They respond to their own research regarding “public perceptions”. If their “concerns” can be properly enunciated, I would be most happy to respond to them.

I should point out that it is not my ambition to coerce the citizens of Toowoomba (or Goulburn, or any other city) into accepting any proposed scheme. However, water recycling is an important national issue and I would like to think that if any scheme (or the broader concept of drinking-water recycling) falls foul of public favour it will not be the result of widespread public lack of knowledge or acceptance of good science. I believe I have something constructive to offer in this arena and that the scientific community in general has a responsibility to help inform the debate.

Just as Lyle is (clearly) not a "flat earth Luddite", I can assure readers that I am equally not a one-eyed "recycling-at-all-costs" obsessive.

Lets talk.



Anonymous said...

And I guess if shit was made eatable through recycling, you would eat it?

We don't want people like you here, we don't care about drinking sewage water PERIOD.

We are not a thrid world country is need of water. The water is there, but nobody wants to spend the money do anything about it.

Recycled sewage has not been tested on this type of scale before, and we do not want to be the subjects of a science experiment conducted by the US.

Your views are not welcome, unless they support the NO vote.

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

Not quite the rational arguments you might have been expecting.

Anonymous said...

Lyle Shelton said: There are many viable, cost effective options that would provide arguably a much longer sustainable water supply than Water Futures.

Reply: He very carefully doesn't say what they are. The best indication we have is his statement, while wearing his best National Party hat, that there should be a pipeline from Wivenhoe to Toowoomba. No mention of cost, because he doesn't know. So how can he say that it is viable or cost effective? And how does this square with National Party policy that the solution is to run a pipeline from Chinchilla?

The truth is that they have no answers, and just seize on whatever they think will get a few votes. He is more interested in his campaign for Toowoomba North than addressing the water problem. The sooner he goes from Council, the better.

Anonymous said...

Stuart, your point about the safety of water recycling, either directly or indirectly, is well taken. And I commend you on your efforts to overcome the ignorance that is so evident in the whole debate. But you see what we're up against; a "don't confuse me with facts" mentality, and a wannabe politician whose main concern is to use the issue to be elected to parliament.

The sad part is that their legacy may be a water starved Toowoomba. We'll just have to see what eventuates. Hopefully reason will overcome emotion, and common sense will prevail.

Anonymous said...

You just have to wait and see what the other options are as there are a few. The council knows and the good lord knows and soon most of Toowoomba will know after the Public Meeting on the 27th May.
This will be an open debate where the community will not be sipping on the Wee-cycled Poo-rified bottled water but will hear the facts, nothing but the facts. We hope the Mayor has the guts to show up and speak.
What is a leader if they do not have the courage of their convictions?
Certainly not this Mayor for all of her bravado!

Anonymous said...

Well, if the meeting on 27th produces facts, and only facts, then that will be a first for the antirecycling mob. So far their case rests only on making up childish slogans that do nothing for reasoned debate, or Toowoomba's image.

I don't blame the Mayor for not going to the meeting. It's not as though she'll get a fair hearing from the mob. You only have to look at their ignorant comments on here.

Wal said...

Stuart, thankyou forthe considered comments in regards to Lyle's e-mail. As you note, there is a fair amount of political speak in there. Unfortunately, this political speak will not provide our fair city with one extra drop of water. At least Lyle states that he is 80% to 90% sure that water recycling is safe.

One of the most unfortunate parts of the no campaign is that it is a result of people choosing to be ignorant. Toowoomba's water supply presently has unplanned recycling already happening, although not on the same scale as in the US or Europe.

The Borneo Barracks Army Base has a sewage treatment plant discharging into Cooby dam and has for many years. The town of Crows Nest has a Common Effluent Disposal (CED) scheme discharging into Cressbrook Dam. This is basically the overflow from septic tanks gathered together, held in a lagoon and then irrigated or drained into the stream. This is licensedby the EPA and is a public record.

The fact is that unplanned poor quality water re-use has happened in Toowoomba for years and there has been no reported harm. Yet planned high quality recycling receives howls of derision.

Ignorance is bliss. But thirst is death. Please, let us not be ignorant. Let us understand the facts.

Anonymous said...

Good Morning,

Please help me out regarding the discovery that:

a) In 1996, a Rand Corporation study found that there was an almost 100% (average of 73%) increase in rates of liver cancer in areas using reclaimed water. The liver is the organ that processes toxic substances and it s likely, not unlikely, that liver cancer could result from unknown toxins in the reclaimed water. The issue is why have not extensive animal tests been done before this water was forced on people? Drinking water standards cover only a limited number of contaminants. They are intended for water obtained from conventional, relatively uncontaminated sources of fresh water, not for reclaimed water, and therefore cannot be relied on as the sole standard of safety." - / Dr. Steven Oppenheimer, Director, Center for Cancer and Developmental Biology SEE


b).every second of every day for almost half a century, recycled sewage has gushed into an El Monte creek and nourished one of Los Angeles County's most precious resources: the drinking water stored beneath the San Gabriel Valley. Cleansed so thoroughly that it is considered pure enough to drink, this flow from the Whittier Narrows reclamation plant meets all government standards. Yet county officials now report that they have found some potent — and until recent months undetected — ingredients in the treated waste: prescription drugs. The contamination raises questions about the safety of reclaimed water consumed by the public and the health of wild creatures that inhabit waterways. The concentrations are so minuscule — in parts per trillion, or a few drops in an Olympic-sized swimming pool — that scientists suspect there is little or no human danger. They acknowledge, however, that no one knows the effects of ingesting tiny doses of multiple drugs continuously over a lifetime. So far, concerns have focused mostly on the ecological threat. Biologists studying frogs on Prozac, insects dosed with anti-seizure drugs, algae killed by antibiotics and fish feminized by birth-control pills have discovered that some streams contain pharmaceuticals and synthetic estrogen at levels harmful to aquatic life. With thousands of varieties of prescription and over-the-counter drugs being sold, there are no government standards restricting any of them in drinking water or in effluent released into streams or lakes.

Water and sewage agencies aren't even required to look for them — and most don't. Testing of drinking water for drugs has been so infrequent that no one knows how much people are ingesting. A national association of wastewater agencies warned in November that pharmaceuticals are a "potential sleeping giant." Sewage in Southern California undergoes some of the world's most rigorous cleansing — tertiary treatment — to protect rivers and streams from bacteria and nitrogen. Much of the wastewater then is routed into aquifers, where it remains for at least six months so soil can filter out more contaminants before potable water is pumped.

In November, the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts reported at a scientific conference that they found high levels of ibuprofen, naproxen and acetaminophen in raw sewage coming into its Whittier Narrows plant, and very small concentrations going out.

In waste that had undergone treatment, the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole and anti-cholesterol medication gemfibrozil were found at fairly high levels of around one part per billion. The antidepressant fluoxetine, the arthritis drug diclofenac, anti-anxiety and anti-seizure drugs, three more antibiotics and others were detected at lower levels, in parts per trillion. Estrogens also were measured in low levels.

Similar findings from two Los Angeles County reclamation plants will be published later this year by Jorg Drewes, an assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.

Robert Horvath, the districts' technical services director, said tiny doses of over-the-counter drugs aren't that worrisome, but other less common medications can amount to an involuntary though "extremely low" public exposure. The agency, which operates 10 reclamation plants, is one of a few with the ability to test for pharmaceuticals.

"It's such a large list of compounds that even the testing is a lot of work — just teasing out which ones are important. So far, we have no [federal or state] goals to shoot for," Horvath said. Fish, frogs and other creatures live, feed and breed in waterways — exposed to the drugs from birth to death.

Collecting carp and other fish in a Dallas stream fed by treated sewage, Baylor University toxicologist Bryan Brooks found fluoxetine, an ingredient of Prozac and other antidepressants, in all fish sampled.

In laboratory frogs, Prozac slows growth and metamorphosis, leaving tadpoles more vulnerable to predation, according to research by University of Georgia ecotoxicologist Marsha Black. In fish, it causes lethargy and delays reproduction, and in crustaceans and shellfish, reproductive rates drop.

The most striking discovery is feminized fish. Male fish in British rivers, Nevada's Lake Mead, the Potomac River and elsewhere are growing female ovarian tissues from continuous exposure to birth-control estrogens and natural hormone excretions in treated sewage.

Many popular medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, are eliminated during sewage treatment. But some pass out of the plants unaltered and are released into streams, oceans and groundwater basins.

"Most pharmaceuticals are designed to be tough because they have to get through your body to have a therapeutic effect," said Margaret Nellor, an environmental consultant who specializes in reclaimed water.

Two widely used anti-epileptic medications — carbamazepine and primidone — survive not only Arizona's advanced, tertiary treatment but also filtration through aquifers' soil. Even after eight years underground, they still contaminate well water used to irrigate parks in Mesa and Tucson, Drewes said. and it goes on

La Leva di Archimede - Assosciation for freedom of choice and correct information.

I take great offence to the accusations that 'no' voters are stupid, don't know what's good for them, and the TMBA CC has severly under-estimated the ability of the public to self-educate - not suck in the rubbish they have attempted to ram down our throats.

I do not find it acceptable that my children may be the sufferers of this decision especially when alternatives are available. Money should not be an issue when the health and safety of a population is concerned. It is amazing that the possible environmental impact was not mentioned, another reason to say no to half cocked information supplied by over-zealous Mayor.

Darwin, NT uses recycled water (not reclaimed water) - so lesser quality and not for drinking on the sporting fields. I witnessed infections, bulging scars caused by these infections, asthma flair ups when any one of my friends or brothers played on these fields. That was 20 years ago, and we all accepted it because we didn't know any better. Well not this time, the concerned shall educate thimself, the lazy believes what he is told, the unconcerned, doesn't vote! And what of all the interviews the Chronicle did with the younger generation, where they were stated saying "I don't see anything wrong with it.." etc etc, and directly quoting the Chronicle's own words and relaying information jammed down their throats by TCC campaign. So now, are we are supposed to be swayed by KIDS, who, thankfully can't vote.

Glad 'no' came through, congratulations Toowoomba.

Stuart Khan said...

Hello Anonymous,

I am glad to help you out with these two queries.

1. The Rand Corporation study was published with the following abstract:

Groundwater Recharge with Reclaimed Water: An Epidemiologic Assessment in Los Angeles County, 1987-1991. E. M. Sloss, S. A. Geschwind, D. McCaffrey, B. R. Ritz. 1996.

“An assessment of the effects on human health of reclaimed water. The assessment compares health data on cancer incidence, mortality, and cases of infectious disease in the Montebello Forebay area, which has received some reclaimed water in its water supply for almost 30 years, with a control area that received no reclaimed water. The epidemiologic study took an ecologic approach, in which the unit of analysis is a group of people, not an individual. The results of the study do not provide evidence that reclaimed water has an adverse effect on health.

The overwhelming international scientific consensus supports the Rand Corporation conclusion.

2. The issues of pharmaceuticals in sewage and the environment are of great interest to me. I share your concerns for the effects of these trace chemicals on the environment. While there is no evidence to support it, I remain very open minded about the potential for public health effects as well.

However, the question is whether advanced water recycling treatment processes (such as reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation) can remove these chemicals. The answer is, they can and this is well established.

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