Sunday, May 28, 2006

What's driving opposition in Toowoomba?

From reports of yesterdays’ community meeting, there is clearly a groundswell of opposition to the current water recycling proposal in Toowoomba. I think it is useful to identify the key issues that have people so wound up.

As I have written previously, I don’t consider it appropriate for me to stick my nose into the local political situation. Since some of the major issues are plainly ‘political’, I have decided not to offer criticism or pass judgement on any of the seven identified issues, but simply to list them as I see them. As an ‘outsider’, I have the advantage of not being influenced by any personal gripes against any local identities. However, if you think I have got it wrong, I’d be very grateful for your comments.

A number of the high-profile opponents apparently have a very good grasp of the scientific or technological aspects of the proposed scheme. However, it is my opinion that these actually have very little to do with most peoples’ concerns. On the contrary, it is fairly evident to me that the principal opposition is much more emotional. Consider the following expression of discontent that was recently posted to the WaterFutures blog:

If the people of Toowoomba vote YES to this plan, the will be civil unrest. The NO voters will want blood, and it will be the YES voters blood, not the TCC. Thorley know this and is using this as a tatic to gain support. Thorley and the State Gov. can not force this on such a large community, I have filed a formal complaint with The Prime Ministers Cabinet and my report have been noted and forwarded to Jon Howard and The Health Commnision for investigation. I can only hope that Howard has more of these reports to do something about a Mayor out of control.. I will want blood if the YES vote wins, it's that simple. Its' time Thorley woke up and see that recycled sewage will not save the city from drying up, only New Water from a stable supply will do that. Does Thorley have an import license to buy bottled water from singapore, no she doesn't, so why isn't customs on her back, or is the water taste test another lie.

Presumably such comments are driven by something more than a perceived deficiency in local water resources planning. Having taken a close interest in such blogs and associated comments, communicated privately with a number of Toowoomba citizens and politicians, and also listened to Toowoomba City Council’s perspective at a recent conference, I propose the following as the seven primary ‘drivers of dissent’:

1. A feeling that the planning for the scheme was undertaken in secrecy to prevent opportunities for community opposition.
2. A feeling that this preconceived plan was then attempted to be forced on the community without any real opportunity to comment, to offer alternative solutions, or to reject it.
3. A feeling that worldwide experience with water recycling was intentionally misrepresented to the community.
4. An on-going feeling that the proponents of the scheme are unwilling to provide answers to the communities questions.
5. A suspicion that someone is secretly trying to take advantage of the Toowoomba community (eg. state government, local government, scientists (for experimentation), water treatment companies, bottled water companies and/or other private interests).
6. General discomfort with the ‘concept’ of potable water recycling (regardless of actual water quality).
7. Concern that potential visitors or future residents of the city may share that discomfort and thus be dissuaded, resulting in decreased tourism and property prices.

It may appear that I have forgotten the ones about ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’, ‘waterborne pathogens’, 'protecting unborn babys' and other ‘unresolved health issues’. However, it is my opinion that these are not serious concerns, but simply used as attempts to sway the opinion of others. None of those arguments stand up when people are prepared to seriously consider the massive worldwide scale of (unplanned) potable reuse (with much lower levels of treatment and stringency of management). Furthermore, they do not stand up against serious consideration of relative exposure to many hazards from recycled water compared to more significant sources. I have found that inviting people to engage in such considerations is a sure way to have them change the topic (or delete my comments from their blog!).

Anyhow, I offer you the “comments” section below to tell me whether you think I am close to the mark or have completely misunderstood where the community are coming from. Don’t hold back.



PD said...

Stuart: Interesting suggestion that the opposition to recycling is more emotion than fact-based. I think you are correct.

In particular, you are right about point #5. There is a general paranoia sweeping some sections of this city. Many people believe that the drive for water recycling is coming from CH2M Hill to provide a large-scale trial of thier technology so that they can use Toowoomba as an international "showroom".

The thoery goes that that the Mayor (and other councillors) have been paid off or are promised kick-backs. The media has then been paid-off by the council.

It would all be slightly amusing if there wasn't so much at stake.

Vidal said...

People can say that they are worried about the risks of chemicals and pathogens as much as they like, but it starts to look a bit rediculous in the face of unanimous scientific opinion that the risks are minimal and manageable. Even Dr Cox is a supporter of potable water recycling since he sees it as a way to ensure chemicals are adequately controlled in the water supply. The only tactics left for the NO vote are puerile slogans and conspiracy theories. I hope they are having fun.

Greg said...

The most important thing at stake here is our civil rights and our freedom of choice. I wouldn't make you accept eating cow dung even if I knew it was perfectly safe! There is other more socially acceptable water that Tooowoomba could use and this should be the first choice! If recycled effluent is so safe then bottle it up and try to get people to accept it that way, don't bloody force it upon them and do not try to feed it to everyone in a community by putting it in domestic water supplies, that is undemocratic and rude.

By the way vidal, show me the proof about the Pathogens!

And PD why the need for a recycled effluent information center in Toowoomba if the drive for water recycling isn't coming from some form of vested financial interest?

Stuart Khan said...

Greg, as Peter Dillon noted in this months Time Magazine, very few people get the opportunity to vote on their water supply source. The fact that you do is about as democratic as it gets anywhere.

However, democracy does not always mean that everybody gets their first choice every time. It usually involves some form of ‘majority rule’. I may not like a particular person or political party that my fellow Australians elect, but democratic behaviour would be to accept their collective decision. As long as that person or party are in power I have to live with decisions they take and laws they make. If they decide to build a public freeway past my front door I won’t be happy, but I won’t call it “undemocratic”. This, of course, does not mean that I am not permitted to protest loudly –which is surely hallmark of true democracy!

You have democracy and I am pleased to see that you are exercising the rights that come with it.

Greg said...

We really do need to exercise our democratic rights here Stuart.
Were not talking about a freeway here it is something we consume and it is a health, social, economic and environmental isssue for everyone residing in this city!
There is other water we could use and ingoring peoples rights or wishes has brought down many Governments. IMO we shouldn't even be considering potable re-use until a set of health guidelines have been put in place.

Stuart Khan said...

We already have health guidelines. They're called the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines and any potable water recycling scheme will need to comply with them.

However, I take your point that it would be valuable to have an additional set of guidelines specifically relating to potable water recycling (and I have publically called for them myself!). These would assist relevant schemes to identify and manage any risks that may be specific or of particular importance to potable water recycling.

Like you, I would be very dissapointed if national and state guidelines were not available prior to (intentionally) recharging any water supplies with recycled water. Such guidelines are currently being worked on and are expected to be ready long before the earliest dates that Toowoomba or Goulburn may go online (pending community acceptance).

W.F. Blog said...

Stuart, Read the Toowoomba CC submission to the National Water Commission for funding the proposal.

It states very clearly the underlying reasons for the project and the way it is proposed to implement it.

W.F. Blog said...

vidal - small children sometimes have irrational fears and sometimes good reason to be scared. They find it hard to distiguish between them each is as real to them as the other and the feelings the same.

They will accept guidance and resolution from someone they trust, most likely a parent.

With that analogy in mind look at the behaviour of Toowoomba City Council, particulalry the Mayor, so you may understand why a large proportion of the community do not trust their judgment and therefore can't accept their solace.

Stuart Khan said...

Yes, I agree that community relations appear not to have been brilliantly managed for this project in Toowoomba (Okay, I’ll say it just once: The process has clearly been an utter shambles). And that really is a shame and I think the community deserves much better.

But to return to your analogy: However scary it may seem to the child and however effectively (or poorly) anybody may try to console the child, it doesn’t make the “big scary thing” any more or less dangerous. It may provide a good explanation for why the child is scared, but it accepts that this fear is irrational.

Surely as adults we can take a step back and look at the whole thing rationally regardless of how ineffectively those who should have done a better job consoling us have done? Irrational fear is understandable in some circumstances, but its unlikely to be in our best interest.

Greg said...

Hmmm Philosphy coming from a Scientist. Interesting! Must admit I partake in that indulgence as well!
Is it not fear that protects the rabbit from the wolf and drives it to hide in its burrow? Is it rational for it to hide from the wolf there and wait till it is probably safe or to come out bravely and blindly and possibly be consumed?

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks to W.F. Blog for directing me to some earlier postings on that blog which are relevant to “What’s driving the opposition in Toowoomba?”. I am now more aware of an additional factor that is worth noting here.

The funding application to the National Water Commission included a section on “Project Justification”. This made much of the fact that a successful Toowoomba scheme would be of “great demonstration value” to the rest of the country.

Its clear that many people have taken offence to this idea on the premise that something so important as water management is should be determined only in terms of what is in the best interests of the directly-affected community. I agree that it should and the offence taken is understandable.

Its not my business to defend TCC, but I will say that if I were asked to prepare the application, I also would have made the same point. Anybody who writes a funding proposal to the Commonwealth Government would try to identify national benefits that would flow from the scheme. It simply helps to justify the request for Commonwealth money.

The words “living laboratory” were undoubtedly poorly chosen. However, I think it is obvious that Australia’s first major planned potable recycling plant will attract significant interest from the rest of the country. I know that many people here think that will be negative interest, but I truly believe that on balance the opposite would be true. In fact, there are many people from all over the world that would be very keen to visit whatever city/scheme is perceived to be a leader in water management (I have been on numerous such tours myself). Of course, this alone is not sufficient justification for the scheme, but I think it’s a fair “additional benefit” to identify in a national context.

Anyhow, the point of this post was to identify what factors have people upset (not to identify the various benefits), so to add to the list:

8. A perception that the scheme is designed more to provide a working template for other cities than it is to address Toowoomba’s water shortages.

W.F. Blog said...

I think your 7 or 8 points is a little trite. It seems to me that the community has about 30 points of concern as detailed below.

These are what need to be dealt with one at a time:

1. Water Futures means that the water you drink, cook with, wash your hair and clothes in, coming from all taps, including eating outlets and restaurants, will contain at least 25% water reclaimed from sewage at the Wetalla sewage treatment plant.

2. According to Council’s own consultants this ratio of 25% recycled water is high by international standards and will need detailed review and further studies.

3. Singapore uses less than 1% with similar technology but has the largest desalination plant in Asia for 10% of its daily needs. Nowhere else in the world deliberately drinks water reclaimed from sewage to the degree proposed by Toowoomba.

4. The technology is new and requires more testing. Cooby Dam has been designated by Council as a “living laboratory”.

5. CSIRO’s 3-5 year testing requirement after construction means NO WATER until 2013. What do we do in the meantime?

6. Water Futures will NOT solve current water supply problems. Water restrictions will remain in place or become more severe until rainfall raises the dam levels above 40% capacity.

7. There are no guidelines for drinking recycled water. Queensland Water Recycling Guidelines say “there are many man-made chemicals that potentially may be found in sewage and it is not possible at this time to set safe concentrations for all of these chemicals.”

8. Other Australian governments have rejected the option of deliberately drinking water reclaimed from sewage. NSW Premier Morris Iemma says “There are still unresolved issues with the health authorities” (ABC Radio, 8/05/06). If it is completely safe and routinely done around the world, why won’t Peter Beattie do it to solve Brisbane’s crisis? Why do they get dams?

9. Water Futures will only temporarily defer the need for a new source of water. Water supply in the form of new dams, bores or similar traditional sources will still be essential in the foreseeable future. Let’s do that one now.

10. Water Futures relies on New Hope Coal taking chemical laden wastewater to their Acland Mine.

11. Water Futures reduces water flows down Oakey Creek. Farmers recycle that water for irrigation and are threatening legal action to protect their livelihoods. There may be costs associated with compensation for those farmers adding to the cost and delays of the project.

12. Council hasn’t allowed public debate but has held closed, one-sided information sessions for selected groups. Without full information you would be wise to vote “NO”.

13. The Water Futures project was developed in secrecy. Trust is now missing.

14. Final building costs of Water Futures are not definite. The ongoing operating costs of the plant have not been properly calculated. The $68million costing will blow-out.

15. Water Futures’ main purpose is a demonstration for other cities. $3million has been allocated to build an education and marketing center of no benefit to Toowoomba ratepayers but of benefit to those marketing the technology to other cities.

16. The technology cannot remove all salts and chemicals from sewage. Water going back to Cooby Dam will contain unknown chemicals. It will not be pure.

17. Sewage contains synthetic organic compounds and new chemicals and pharmaceuticals are being developed all the time. How to remove them from water is still being studied. This should be done over a long period BEFORE deciding the water is safe for drinking.

18. Toowoomba shouldn’t have a water supply process that still needs testing. Any water supply for over 100,000 people should use tried and proven methods. We are not guinea pigs.

19. It is possible that demineralised water returning to Cooby Dam will damage that ecosystem. That effect has not been studied.

20. Drinking recycled water is not a generally acceptable thing to do. Toowoomba will be seen as having an inferior water supply by modern standards. This will destroy the clean and green image of the “Garden City” making it unattractive.

21. Businesses, industry, families, retirees and travellers will be discouraged from visiting, investing or living in the “Garden City”.

22. Food processors in Toowoomba will find their products unmarketable to the wider population. Some may leave, causing unemployment.

23. Council has been influenced by a large multinational corporation, CH2M Hill, to adopt Water Futures. CH2M Hill has already been paid over $140,000 for “community education” as well as consultancy fees. They stand to gain from the construction of the project.

24. Premier Beattie has announced an infrastructure fund of $1billion and has decided to build two major dams in south-east Queensland. Emu Creek Dam, near Toowoomba, would nearly double the city’s water storage if it was built.

25. The Government’s underlying report saying the safe yield of our dams has been exceeded has never been published, verified or even seen by Council.

26. Sustainable supplies of underground drinking water in the Condamine alluvium are being ignored by Council

27. A pipeline from Wivenhoe Dam to Cressbrook Dam, about 33km with about 175m lift is a viable option.

28. Water from natural gas fields is an option already taken up by Dalby and Chinchilla.

29. The closest and most immediate water supply is the Great Artesian Basin.

30. Recycling for non-drinking purposes is part of a safe solution. There are other uses for effluent that are more economic, sustainable and environmentally responsible

31. The $22 million drink-it-or-lose-it offer from the Federal Government puts unfair pressure on our community to accept a risky water supply option.

32. Why has Council voted itself $460,000 of your money to advertise their case only?

33. Water Futures will mean outdoor water restrictions forever to keep water within the cycle.

34. To deny your natural instinct and adopt untested new technology is foolish.

35. The tragedies of thalidomide, asbestos and mad cow disease were caused by the ignorance of the long term effects of new science.

36. A “NO” vote will ensure all options are properly examined and the safest solution adopted.

37. It’s OK to say “NO”, it is the responsible thing to do.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks W.F. Blog. Yes, I am aware of these 37 points being distributed as the NO case for the referendum. The purpose of my blog was to try to identify the underlying factors motivating the opposition to the scheme. I’m not claiming to definitely have it right, -its simply my reading of the situation based on numerous sources of information including these 37 points. I’m not quite arrogant (or naive) enough to try to tell you what motivates you personally, but I think its fair to say that most of the 37 points here are designed to appeal to at least one of the 7 (or 8) factors that I have listed. In my (always fallible) opinion, those that are not, go out on a limb to suggest something that is really not a credible argument against an advanced water recycling scheme (eg. No’s 7,8,16,17,19). I’m not saying that you’re wrong, -only that I think my list is inclusive of most of the points you have raised.

Anonymous said...

Stuart Khan:

What if the YES case wins, and Toowoomba is devided. The people who voted NO would want compensation, the council can't just state buy bottled water. They have an obligation to provide the city with water. The fact the referendum will divide this issue, the council are not prepared to offer alternatives. Leaving the NO voters one choice, LEAVE the city.

In my opinion this should be stopped before it causes unrest, the council are already getting threating letters, it won'y take long before that becomes physical.

I am disgusted in the council not seeking any of the alternative, now we missed out on the SEQ new water scheme presented by Beattie.

There will be a DAM built just 33Km from Toowoomba's. That will drain the catchment from Toowoomba even further.

This city will dry up, and I would like a more ethical approach to solving the water problem. Recycled sewerage at 20-30% is not used anywhere in the world, and that is our biggest concern.

I only hope the vote goes NO, because it will force a more sensible approach to the problem, instead of an easy cheap FIX. The council have no problem spending rate payers money, but not for finding alternatives. We have had enough of the LIES and People like you stating this is safe, when no evidence has been presented to proce it.

Beside the federal government are going to set guidelines for recycled sewerage in Australia, and using fro drinking will not be one of them, most politicains have already stated this.

The council are buying into a dying project.

Stuart Khan said...

G’day Jaun,

I am confident that nobody would act irrationally as you suggest and I am sure that your comments regarding physical violence are meant metaphorically.

However, I do agree with you that this referendum may well have the very unfortunate effect of dividing the community (regardless of the outcome). I see that as a very serious deficiency of the process that has been adopted in Toowoomba and we need to make sure that we learn from our mistakes. I think there will be a very major lesson here.

If suitable national guidelines for water recycling are not available and adopted before the (potential) Toowoomba scheme comes online, I will join you in your protests.

Anonymous said...

I was not speaking metaphorically about the violence, people that I talk to would love to see our gracious mayor in hospital, whether thats's true or not I don't, but the implication is there. I am not one of them, but she has pushed me beyond a point I do not like. This could be why our mayor doesn't show herself in public anymore.

I guess you have to be here in the city everyday and see what I mean. We hear about the council everyday and everyday it gets worse. Most of us now beleave there is more to this then helping the water problem here. We are sick of the lies and fact the council can break the law they enforce on to us.

If the council said they would use this recycled water for industry, farming, and dual pipes, they would have gotten 100% acceptance, but they wanted more and are now getting nothing. Greedy people always end up losing.

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