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 Sealed Water-proof Bathers... a new Law!?

An environmentalist boaty takes a look at the law... and spews!

 By Charles Ryman,
SV, “Magical”

In response to your (TCP number 12) of January 2005 regarding sewerage and pump out stations, I believe the true situation is still not clearly understood, either by boaties or the general public. In July 2004 my wife and I attended a seminar on the subject hosted by the State member for Broadwater at the Southport yacht club attended by a representative of Marine Safety Queensland (MSQ) and a scientist now working for MSQ. The following points come from that meeting as well as questions I have asked after the meeting and follow-up phone calls.

1. We already have the maximum number of pump out stations that will ever be in Queensland, and the number is likely to decline in the long-term. Brisbane City Council, the largest municipal authority Queensland/Australia, refuses to remove waste from pump out stations, as does Harvey Bay Council and while the Gold Coast City Council currently removes waste from the existing stations they have indicated they will not exceed the current levels and they actually wish to reduce their current pump out levels. The reason for this is quite simple, sewage treatment works are not designed to treat effluent in salt water. Further to that, all Queensland coastal councils have a long-term aim of recycling treated sewage into the basics of "grey water" and nutrients. Recycling any sewage that contains salt water is not viable, either practically or commercially. You cannot pump any level of salt water inland for irrigation purposes.

2. Faecal matter and urine are both seen by the MSQ as equally damaging and equally dangerous. Peeing off the back of a boat within 1 nautical mile of the swimmer in the water will make you liable for a fine of up to $65,000. On any given holiday weekend on the Queensland coast there are tens of thousands of people swimming in close proximity, hopefully between the flags, on our beaches. If only 10% of these people decide not to trudge the 300 m over burning hot sand up the beach to the nearest toilet block and instead are quietly peeing in the water, at the same time smiling at their friends, the question you have to ask is , what is the effect on the environment? And what is the government doing about it?

Now an intelligent person who has somehow got through the maize of current legislation would have to assume that by now all persons entering the water from the beach in Queensland will be required to wear completely sealed waterproof bathers so that upon leaving the said water any " accidental discharges" are kept within the confines of the fully sealed waterproof bathers and then can be hygienically disposed of either at a convenient ablutions block or "in the comfort of their own home".

The actual answers to the above questions are; in regard to the environment, the effect is basically not much, it appears to be a little-known scientific fact (although it is actually a well-known scientific fact) that , faecal chloroform's (the bad guys) and urine are very quickly dissipated in salt water and are in fact chemically neutralised by the seawater. The same of course applies to faecal matter that has gone through a maccerator, it has become "environmentally diluted" (a phrase used by both the Brisbane City Council and the Environmental Protection Agency to describe the hundreds of thousands of litres of untreated sewage mixed with a rainwater that the Brisbane City Council allows to flow into the Brisbane River every single year without penalty) and will be quickly neutralised by the chemical action of the salt water. The answer to the question of "what is the Queensland Government doing about it" remains to be seen, a fair and reasonable Government has two choices, one, it reviews the entire legislation and treats the boaties in a more intelligent and fairer manner, or, two, it starts issuing on the spot fines of $65,000 to anybody that, in the view of the appropriate inspector, "can be reasonably believed to have committed the offence " of peeing in the water.

3. Treatment systems in boats. The current treatment systems are all based on adding chlorine to the toilet discharge, either by an injection of current or a direct injection of liquid chlorine. Everytime the system is used it produces what is euphemistically referred to as "residual chlorine", that is everytime the toilet is flushed extra raw chlorine is pumped into the ocean. When a question was raised about this disconcerting event we were told that the "residual chlorine" was within the prescribed limits set down, whatever that means. Does this mean the limits prescribed by dolphins, or the limits prescribed by angel fish, or is it the more robust limits required for perhaps a whale?

  We were then told in no uncertain terms that the "residual chlorine" is broken down and neutralised by the chemical action of the salt water. Well, so are faecal chloroform's, so why bother with this system in the first place, why not just use holding tanks in places like marinas and areas that can be proven to be sensitive. After all, if you want to do some real damage to the fish life or the reef, just add chlorine.

4. An unpleasant subject but. One man's food is another man's poison. And in this case faecal matter, "by any other name", is still just that -- Fish Food. That's right boys and girls, whenever you flush the toilet on your boat the fish waiting down below don't go "oh no here comes more of Johnny's faecal matter, what they're really saying is, wow look, here comes the entree, main course and dessert!" The fact is the very survival of a great deal of our sea life relies on a certain amount of our completely untreated waste, an amount that the actual number of boats cruising the coast will never exceed.

5. There is worst news. A great deal of the entire legislation doesn't appear to be based on fact or scientific evidence. I refer here particularly to non-commercial vessels and the distances required between discharge of waste and reefs, sensitive areas and swimmers in the water. And no we don't wish to damage either reefs or swimmers in the water, however when there is a chance of being fined $65,000 because a swimmer I hadn't seen was only a hundred meters away, I would like to know that they were actually in real and present danger from my waste, particularly when the tide was in the other direction! There also appears to be no scientific evidence or fact as to why a boat is required to be either half a nautical mile offshore or one nautical mile offshore when it discharges the holding tank.

On a recent trip north while at anchor we discharged through the toilet and its maccerator system half a litre of a commercial marine toilet cleaner which is guaranteed to be biodegradable and is almost black in colour, this particular liquid is also guaranteed to leave an almost indelible stain on anything it touches as I have previously found to my regret. After discharge it could be seen staining the water for about half a boat length from the back of the boat -- 6 m, at a distance of 12 m from the back of the boat, any staining was barely perceptible and at 20 m no stain could be seen in the water even while wearing goggles and snorkelling gear. In our experience most waste that goes through the maccerator either sinks or is so quickly dispersed as an "environmentally diluted" fluid that its ability to harm the environment or anyone else in the area is strictly limited.

These limitations of environmental damage can be clearly demonstrated when you recognise that after over 1,000,000 litres of raw sewage was accidentally discharged into Tallebudgerer Creek last year the oyster beds in this area were deemed to be fit for human consumption I believe around four days later.

6. Further concerns. The severity of the fines, up to $65,000, are a grave concern. Recently the Courier mail reported that the Caboulture City Council was responsible for a discharge of around 300,000 litres of untreated sewage into the Caboulture River, it was reported that the EPA was considering a fine of $30,000. That works out at 10 cents a litre. In the case of the Brisbane City Council which has managed to dump at least 1.6 million litres of raw sewage into the Brisbane River for the last two years in a row, I can find no evidence of an EPA fine. If the EPA did fine the Brisbane City Council say $65,000 for every 1,000,000 litres of raw sewage that they spilled into the Brisbane River that works out at $6.50 for every hundred litres of raw sewage!! On this basis alone the maximum fine for a boatie discharging waste in an improper manner should be no more $.25.

I must repeat the fact that we are not “anti environment", holding tanks are appropriate in marinas and serious "at risk" areas. However this legislation is not appropriate or fair or reasonable, amongst its other failings it gives public servants and maritime inspectors more power than the police. They can enter your home (your boat) without warrants without your permission and apparently without you even being there and can charge you with an offence under this legislation that carries a fine of $65,000 even without evidence. This legislation appears to be based more on the "politics of envy" and the desire by the Queensland Government to enforce its power and will on a group of people not because it should but just because it can, which is what a police state is all about.