Monday, November 10, 2008

Not the NHMRC

Occasionally when you read a news article, the author’s personal position on the topic is all too clear. Today The Australian continues its campaign against sustainable water management in Queensland.

It is unfortunate that the article below gives a (very) strong impression that the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is opposed to indirect potable water reuse or has issued any type of warning to anyone. The impression that the NHMRC has issued to some warning to the Queensland Government is patently incorrect.

Professor Don Bursill
is the Chair of an advisory committee to the NHMRC and he has expressed his personal opinion that he supports recycling, but only where it is absolutely necessary. We have discussed Don’s position on this previously. There is really no new news here. The Water Quality Advisory Committee that Don chairs made some important contributions to the current National Guidelines for Water Recycling and the overall position of the committee is embedded in the fact that such Guidelines exist and have been endorsed by the NHMRC.

The article then goes on (in the same breathless breath) to state that “the Gold Coast City Council launched an investigation into how unsafe recycled waste water was if put into a treatment plant's drinking water”. Yes, but of course they are not referring to water that has been treated and managed as an intended drinking water supply. They are referring to a system that provides a lower-level recycled water intended purely for non-potable purposes. It may seem like a subtle point, but the implications are significant.

Investigating the safety of recycled water and water management in general is a worthy task for any news source. However, it would help us all if the facts could be made clear rather than intertwined in a way that distorts their meaning. Just my opinion...



Recycle Sewage 'as a Last Resort'
Greg Roberts
November 10, 2008
The Australian


THE federal agency responsible for establishing national health standards has warned the Queensland Government it should not proceed with its $2.5 billion plan to recycle sewage and industrial waste for drinking water unless it is "absolutely necessary".

National Health and Medical Research Council water quality advisory committee chairman Don Bursill issued the warning as the Gold Coast City Council launched an investigation into how unsafe recycled waste water was if put into a treatment plant's drinking water.

Sixty million litres of recycled waste water a day will be pumped to the Wivenhoe Dam, Brisbane's main drinking water source, from early next year.

The Queensland Government promised in 2006 that recycled water would be used for the drinking supply of the 2.6 million residents of southeast Queensland only as a "last resort".

Since the undertaking was given, Wivenhoe and other storages in the region have been replenished following good rainfall, but the Government insists recycled water should be introduced now to guarantee future supplies.

Professor Bursill said he supported water recycling, but only if it were absolutely necessary.

"I think that recycling waste water for potable purposes should be a choice of last report," he said.

"There are opportunities for problems to occur and if it can be avoided, I think it should be. The maintenance of public health should be the primary concern."

He said the Queensland Government had prepared itself well, accepting the NHMRC's Australian Water Recycling Guidelines and introducing the Water Supply (Safety and Reliability) Bill. However, the main cause for concern was the potential for human error.

"It is worth reminding people that although technology can achieve recycling for potable purposes, about 80 per cent of the failures that have occurred in conventional water supply systems in affluent countries have been due to human error rather than technology issues," Professor Bursill said.

Human error was being blamed for a mistake at Gold Coast Water's Pimpana recycled water plant that resulted in staff drinking inadequately treated waste water.

The general public was not exposed to the water.

Gold Coast Mayor Ron Clarke said a staff member was believed to have been responsible for mixing up waste-water lines at the plant in September.

A pipeline was disconnected on Friday when the problem was uncovered.

Up to 240 employees and visitors who may have drunk water that was not fit for consumption are being contacted to determine if they had suffered any ill effects.

"Somebody has stuffed up and it should have been cross-checked before it happened," Mr Clarke said.

"If it had happened in the public works, it would have been disastrous. I am told that the checks are there to ensure that cannot happen."

Public meetings have been called in Brisbane on Saturday and on the Gold Coast on Sunday to protest against the recycled water plan.

Citizens Against Drinking Sewage secretary Aileen Smith said the Queensland Government could give no guarantees that a repeat of the cryptosporidium outbreak in 1993 in the US city of Milwaukee would be avoided.

More than 400,000 people fell ill and 100 died after drinking contaminated water from a treatment plant; the cause was never identified.

Recycled water will account for between 10 per cent and 25 per cent of southeast Queensland's drinking water, with the Government insisting it will be safe after treatment through a seven-stage process.

11 comments:

Stuart Khan said...

My opening sentence to the above blog was:

“Occasionally when you read a news article, the author’s personal position on the topic is all too clear”

As if to demonstrate my point, Australian Associated Press (AAP) have taken the same comments from Don Bursill and presented them in a way that provides a completely different impression.

I think it is fair to say that this article much more accurately reflects the NHMRC’s position towards water recycling in general. I don’t know that the NHMRC actually has a position on the Queensland Government!

Nonetheless, I still don’t think it is appropriate to suggest that Don Bursill’s personal comments are equivalent to being the NHMRCs position on anything…

If I were a teacher of media studies, I would think the differences between these two articles to be a pure gold case study.

Health body backs recycled water preparations
November 10, 2008
Australian Associated Press


Australia's peak health standards agency says the Queensland government has prepared well to ensure recycled water can be safely added to the drinking supply.

The state opposition and a number of water industry figures have criticised the government for pushing ahead with its scheme to pump purified effluent into the drinking water system.

National Health and Medical Research Council water quality advisory committee chairman Professor Don Bursill said steps were well advanced to ensure the water's safety.

"The Queensland government has prepared itself well for this strategy," he said in a statement.

"They have built up their water quality expertise in the regulatory area, they have taken note of the new Australian Water Recycling Guidelines and they have passed the Water Supply (Safety and Reliability) Bill in May this year.

"This is a significant improvement in the way in which water quality is regulated in Queensland and will improve the chances of it being a success."

The first recycled water from three treatment plants will be pumped into Wivenhoe Dam early next year after testing is complete.

The opposition Liberal National Party says it opposes the use of recycled water for drinking but accepts its use in industry and some farming.

AAP

Marilyn Chalkley said...

The NHMRC has just distributed this media release about The Australian article


MEDIA RELEASE


10 November 2008

NHMRC HAS NOT WARNED THE QUEENSLAND GOVERNMENT ON RECYCLING WATER

The National Health and Medical Research Council has never warned the Queensland Government it should not go ahead with its water recycling plan, as was incorrectly reported in today’s Australian, the CEO of the NHMRC, Professor Warwick Anderson, says.

“The role of the NHMRC is to produce and endorse national guidelines, in this case the Australian Guidelines for Water Recycling – Augmentation of Drinking Water Supplies, for agencies to follow to protect public health.

“Public health is of paramount importance and the national guidelines reflect this. Responsibility for recycling water lies with state or local jurisdictions.

“I am informed by Professor Don Bursill, the chair of our Water Quality Advisory Committee, that he was not interviewed by the Australian and did not warn the Queensland Government it should not proceed. What he did say last week,* which was not reported in the Australian, was:

The Queensland Government has prepared itself well for this strategy, they have built up their water quality expertise in the regulatory area, they have taken note of the new Australian Water Recycling Guidelines and they have passed the Water Supply (Safety and Reliability) Bill in May this year. This is a significant improvement in the way in which water quality is regulated in Queensland and will improve the chances of it being a success.

* to The Australian Science Media Centre, in a ‘rapid roundup’ on recycled water, which they circulated to media, on 30 October.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks Marilyn,

I should have recognised the source! I have a copy of that "Rapid Roundup" media release...

In the interests of transparency and completion, Don's quote is provided in it's entirety below:

"I am a supporter of water recycling, but I think that recycling waste water for potable (drinkable) purposes should be a choice of last report. It is also worth reminding people that although technology can achieve recycling for potable purposes, about 80% of the failures that have occurred in conventional water supply systems in affluent countries in the last 20-30 years have been due to human error rather than technology issues.

The Queensland government has prepared itself well for this strategy, they have built up their water quality expertise in the regulatory area, they have taken note of the new Australian Water Recycling Guidelines and they have passed the Water Supply (Safety and Reliability) Bill in May this year. This is a significant improvement in the way in which water quality is regulated in Queensland and will improve the chances of it being a success.

There are still opportunities for problems to occur and if it can be avoided I think it should be. The maintenance of public health should the primary concern, but if it is absolutely necessary then strong legislation and auditing process that have been instituted this year with good expertise in the regulatory area will help a lot in making sure that they keep the system operating at its optimum."

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is a pity to see The Australian stoop to such a low standard. I always thought that the reporters of The Australian held the highest regard for ethics and factual reporting. Guess I was wrong....

Anonymous said...

Cyanide to be recycled for drinking water in Queensland http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,24633016-5006786,00.html

Anonymous said...

The Australian reported on Monday comments by Professor Bursill that, although the Queensland Government had prepared itself well, there was potential for human error with recycled water schemes and they should be used for drinking water only if "absolutely necessary".
Following complaints from state authorities, the National Health and Medical Research Council issued a statement reporting Professor Bursill's positive comment about the Queensland plan but omitting all of his cautionary remarks. Council chief executive Warwick Anderson declined to comment yesterday on why Professor Bursill had been reported selectively.
Professor Bursill said he was not consulted about the statement and was not in a position to pass judgment on the Queensland plan. But he said: "As a general principle, one would clearly be looking for other conventional sources before looking at waste water recycling,"

Nationals water science is kooky voodoo, Anna Bligh says:http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,24639105-30417,00.html

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks Anonymous,

Yes, regardless of The Australian’s own spin on it, the point of the NHMRC Media Release (see above) was clearly to state that the NHMRC had issued no warning to the Queensland Government.

I think the NHMRC has a right (and a responsibility) to ensure that their position is not misrepresented in the media. The NHMRC are not opposed to potable water recycling and it is incorrect, misleading and wrong to suggest that they, or anybody who represents them, are.

Anonymous said...

LOOKS LIKE NASA ISN'T AWARE OF THE PLAN FOR SEQ?

Astronauts head for extreme home makeover in space
By MARCIA DUNN AP Aerospace Writer © 2008 The Associated Press
Nov. 9, 2008, 8:53AM
Endeavour's commander, Christopher Ferguson, considers the water system the single most important piece of equipment that he's delivering. He said the benefits go way beyond the space station — think of all the deep-space exploration made possible once crews are freed of lugging water.
"This is really it, and it has no parallel. I would challenge you to find any other system on the Earth that recycles urine into drinkable water. It's such a repulsive concept that nobody would even broach it.
"But that day will come on this planet, too, where we're going to need to have these technologies in place, and this is just a great way to get started."
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/tx/6103168.html

Stuart Khan said...

Yes, it seems that the folks at NASA have not been paying attention to the Sleek Geeks :-)

Anonymous said...

And then the NHMRC does its own spin. Spin, spin, spin!

Anonymous said...

It cuts both ways. In 2006, the Toowoomba City Council used 3 plumbers to beat up a story that the Master Plumbers Association endorsed potable reuse. The Association hadn't made any such endorsement. The first casualty is always the truth.

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