By Jess Baker
Southern Downs councillors have been told they will need to find an additional $30 million to repair failing sewerage systems following a meeting with the Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES).
Southern Downs Regional Council (SDRC) Manager of Water Lalji Rathod told councillors at an Information Session last week that SDRC has a “history of non-compliance” that needs to be addressed.
“Under the Environmental Protection Act 1994, Council has two priorities… its general environmental duty and its duty to notify of environmental harm,” he said.
“We (SDRC) have reported 55 incidents since 2015… that’s 31 Stanthorpe incidents and 24 Warwick incidents.”
Lalji said the high number of reported incidents is more a “symptom of failing systems” than an indication of Council’s commitment to its duty to notify of environmental harm.
“We are in the top five percent (in the state) for reporting incidents,” he said.
“This is not a situation to be proud of.”
Since 2015, across both Warwick and Stanthorpe, SDRC has had five formal warnings, a statutory order, 18 Quart Pot Creek discharge events, two penalty infringement notices, one draft Environmental Protection Order (EPO), one Environmental Evaluation, one EPO and a discharge of treated effluent to Lyndhurst Stud.
“The next steps for us include a commitment to invest an additional $30 million over the next five years,” said Lalji.
In addition to this spend, he said SDRC must replace the Stanthorpe Sewage Treatment Plant under a condition of its Environmental Authority and increase spending in the medium term to break the “boom bust cycle” and mitigate risk.
SDRC Asset Management Coordinator Elle Pembroke said these measures are not being suggested to Council but are a requirement of Council.
“Ensuring these steps are taken is in no way gold plating our assets… this is the bare minimum,” she said.
“Asset management practices and a condition assessment program are key to ensuring we’re not in this situation again in five years’ time.
“We need to put an end to the pattern of non-compliance we’ve had in the last five years or so.”
The stern advice to councillors follows three recent wastewater overflows from SDRC sewerage systems, all of which are being investigated by DES.
The latest incident occurred less than four weeks ago, over the last weekend of February, and was reported to DES for its consideration “as part of Council’s general environmental duty”.
It is not yet known what caused the overflow at the Warwick Sewage Treatment Plant or whether contaminants reached the Condamine River, but Lalji confirmed DES issued an EPO to SDRC to undertake specific biosolid management duties shortly after the spill.
It is understood DES and SDRC met on Monday 15 March to discuss how SDRC can improve its systems.
One week before the “possible pollution incident” was announced, an overflow from Warwick’s McEvoy Street pump station spilled into Bracker Creek on Friday 19 February.
A Council spokesperson blamed aging infrastructure and poor maintenance procedures by previous administrations for the overflow and said SDRC is planning and budgeting to address the issue.
Just days before the McEvoy Street incident, on Saturday 13 February, a “switchboard failure” at the Killarney pump station caused an overflow of approximately 200 kilolitres from a sewer pump on site.
A Council spokesperson said 26,000 litres of overflow was captured in emergency storage tanks with no inflow to waterways.
Lalji explained at last week’s Information Session that while capacity constraints exist at both Warwick and Stanthorpe sewage treatment plants, recent frequent incidents are the result of a “combination of many things”.
“They could be the result of not-so-functional treatment facilities,” he said.
“But our sewerage systems are failing for a number of different reasons.”