NORTH HEAD AND MALABAR SEWAGE TREATMENT PLANT INCINERATORS
The Hon. R. J. WEBSTER (Minister for Planning, and Minister for Housing) [10.35]: Honourable members might be aware that the honourable member for Manly recently moved a motion in the other Chamber regarding North Head and Malabar incinerators. The Opposition was obliged to support the motion, for the Malabar incinerator concerns the electorate of the Leader of the Opposition and he could not allow the honourable member for Manly to steal his thunder. I wish to make this statement to establish the truth of this matter and to make clear my intentions. I am concerned that as a result of the reporting of this matter members of the community could be needlessly troubled, even frightened. The Manly Daily, for example, ran a banner headline that shrieked "Cancer Risk". I do not blame the media for this because the shameful fabrication was made for them by honourable members of this Parliament. This is unwarranted and unjustified. The motion put forward by Dr Macdonald, agreed to by the Opposition and the Legislative Assembly, was:
Dr Macdonald put this motion on the basis of his claims about the $3.5 million study - initiated by the Sydney Water Board and managed by the Environment Protection Authority - to assess the risks of emissions from the incinerators. I might add that this study, one of the most comprehensive ever undertaken in the world, represents a significant investment in the protection of the community's health. Dr Macdonald does not appear to want to acknowledge this fact. However, he was involved in the study through Manly Council which, together with Randwick Council, the Department of Health and community representatives made up a working party to oversee the study with the EPA and the Water Board. Dr Macdonald's claims about the study are false.
There are no adverse findings. In fact, this is Dr Macdonald's disappointment. So instead, what does he do as a responsible medical practitioner and a member of this Parliament but mislead the House about the possibility of cancer and people's risks of getting it. He has claimed that the study shows that there is a significant risk of cancer from the incinerators. It does no such thing. The study says that the operation of the incinerators is considered to be very safe; that the health risk associated with the incinerators is negligible; and that the incinerators were only minor contributors to the total air pollution in the surrounding areas. The risk assessment used in the emissions study is very conservative. The one in ten thousand statistical risk, upon which Dr Macdonald bases his false claims, is a worst case scenario. It is based on a hypothetical person residing for a lifetime - 70 years - at the point of maximum concentrations of emissions, and upon an assumption that the material being burnt has the highest possible toxicity levels. This is a theoretical level designed to standardise risk assessment.
One does not have to be Einstein to work out that in reality no one is exposed to anything like this level of risk. Frankly, we are all in much greater danger in the peak hour traffic than we might be from the Malabar incinerator. Dr Macdonald has also made claims about international best practice. In fact, he parades himself as an expert on international environmental law. He says that in the United States the incinerators would be closed, that the risk of one in 10,000 is not enough and that it should be one in 100,000. Well, he is wrong again. Dr Macdonald either wilfully misled the House when he moved the motion or he has severe problems of selective reading.
Hansard of 17 March records Dr Macdonald quoting an Environment Protection Authority report. He claimed that the standard used in the United States Environmental Protection Agency and by the new EPA is one in 100,000 for incinerators and that, as the study shows Malabar to have a one in 10,000 risk, this is 10 times greater than the EPA standard. To do this conjuring trick Dr Macdonald quoted from a draft technical report not undertaken for the New South
Wales EPA, as Dr Macdonald would have one think, but for the United States EPA. Not only did he get his EPAs mixed up but he also quoted very selectively from the draft United States report. The same paragraph from which he quoted went on to say that, because sewage sludge incinerators exhibit a low risk, the United States EPA uses a factor of one in 10,000 - yes, one in 10,000 and not one in 100,000. That fact apparently escaped Dr Macdonald's notice. Let us be clear on this matter. Contrary to the claims made by Dr Macdonald, and irrespective of what individual States in America might decide, the United States EPA guidelines for sewage sludge incineration state:
That in view of the adverse findings of the emissions testing program, including the risk assessment of the emissions at North Head and Malabar and the health concerns of the local community, this House calls upon the Minister responsible for the Sydney Water Board to close down the Malabar incinerator and decommission the incinerators at North Head and Malabar sewage treatment plants.
That is to say that one in 10,000 is a negligible risk. In line with international best practice, that conclusion has been reached by the New South Wales EPA only in a very conservative manner; by calculating the risk of a hypothetical person spending 70 years on top of the incinerator stack. By manipulating the facts in this way, Dr Macdonald treats the truth, this Parliament and his elected office with contempt. If such behaviour were exhibited by a Minister I am sure that Dr Macdonald would want to apply the strictest and most proper code of conduct. But it seems that there is another rule for certain people in another place. I express my genuine disappointment with the honourable member for Manly on this matter. Dr Macdonald claims to be an independent voice for the environment yet, by proposing that the incinerators at Malabar be shut down, he wants the least environmentally sound outcome.
For the benefit of honourable members, I should explain that the incinerators at North Head and at Malabar have performed different functions. The incinerators at North Head - which were shut down in January 1992 - used to burn sewage sludge, which is a reusable substance. The decision to shut down the North Head incinerators was taken to meet the Government's commitment to cease ocean disposal of sludge and reuse the sludge beneficially rather than stop incineration per se. The Government met its commitment and ceased ocean disposal of sludge more than a year ago. The board now recycles about 75 per cent of its sludge, mostly in beneficial land applications. That is a major achievement, given that five years ago no markets had been established for recycled sludge products. On the other hand, the incinerators at Malabar do not burn sludge; they burn screenings only. Screenings are materials not suitable for reuse, the litter left over after the treatment of sewage - the plastic, rubber, paper and material items that people so carelessly dispose of down the sewerage pipes.
At this point I shall deal with the participation of the Leader of the Opposition in the debate on the motion moved by Dr Macdonald. I ask the Leader of the Opposition what one would do with the screenings if one cannot burn them at Malabar - and honourable members should remember that incineration at Malabar deals with screenings, not sludge. There is no doubt that the option of landfilling as opposed to incineration is a poor alternative and brings about a very poor environmental outcome. As I understand it, both Dr Macdonald and Bob Carr favour recycling and minimising the disposal of waste to landfill, as I believe all honourable members do.
The Hon. R. S. L. Jones: Including you?
The Hon. R. J. WEBSTER: Including me. In this Government I started recycling. It seems that Dr Macdonald and the Leader of the Opposition are against incineration. They cannot have it both ways. If one is not able to burn the material and if it cannot be used for landfill purposes, what will one do with it? I challenge even the Hon. R. S. L. Jones to work out a way in which screenings might be recycled from a sewage treatment plant. With regard to incineration as an option for waste management, it might interest honourable members to know that the EPA's submission to the Joint Select Committee upon Waste Management concluded:
Based on existing data the unit (1 in 10,000) is protective of public health.
It is clear that in the case of the incinerators at Malabar, recycling and waste avoidance are not available options. It should be noted that the incinerators at Malabar operate within EPA licence conditions. Dr Macdonald has talked about international best practice. It is no accident that the Federal Government of Germany is introducing laws that require the incineration of a wide range of waste materials before being put into landfill. Germany has recognised that the best environmental outcome is to minimise the volume of waste going to landfill and that incineration is not inherently evil - rather, it can be a viable, environmentally responsible method of managing waste products. Other governments in Europe are following the same path, with positive policies promoting incineration over other methods of waste disposal.
Dr Macdonald might say, "Hang the expense". Why should he care how much it would cost Water Board customers to close down the incinerators at Malabar? He is not accountable. The Water Board has just spent $2 million refurbishing one of the incinerators at Malabar and it plans to spend $500,000 on the other in 1994-95. If the incinerators at Malabar were closed it would cost an estimated $1.5 million in capital expenditure to establish a lime stabilisation facility to handle screenings. There would also be an annual operating cost of about $700,000 for landfill disposal.
Costs aside, the benefit to the environment of such a proposal is not proved. The Water Board would have to undertake a review of environmental factors to establish whether there is an environmental benefit in the land disposal option. That review would canvass all issues, including increased truck movements through the electorate of the honourable member for Maroubra, the Leader of the Opposition. It makes no sense to propose the closure of the incinerators at Malabar, in which the community
invested considerable capital, in order to eliminate a negligible risk when actions to reduce that risk even further are being taken. The Deputy Chief Health Officer for New South Wales, Dr Gavin Frost, has commented:
Incineration, where it meets environmental standards, should not be discounted as a method waste disposal where recycling and waste avoidance are not available options.
In line with international best practice, the EPA has required, by notice to the board, that practical options for the reduction of even that negligible risk be reported on by September. The board will employ the services of experts acceptable to the EPA to undertake the work. This brings me to the main point of this statement: I advise the House that I have considered very seriously the issues raised by Dr Macdonald's motion. I do not believe that Dr Macdonald's case is proved. This is because the study of emissions indicates a negligible risk to health from the Malabar incinerators; the operation of the incinerators has been found to be very safe and within EPA licence conditions; screenings are not beneficially reusable and disposal by incineration is a viable and environmentally better outcome than landfilling; the environmental and financial benefits of alternatives to incineration would need to be established and the community would have to be willing to accept these costs and benefits; and the Water Board is taking all appropriate actions to meet the requirements of the EPA as notified and will report by September on any further options for risk reduction.
This final point is most important: following receipt of the report in September the EPA and the Department of Health will advise me, as Minister responsible for the Water Board, as to the satisfaction of their requirements for the protection of the environment, public health and safety. I shall then be in the best position to advise Parliament - and I am now making a commitment to do so - about the outcome and any further actions that should be taken, including whether or not the incinerators should be closed. I wish to point out that there are two Houses of Parliament in New South Wales, not one. Until both Houses resolve by legislation, the Government does not feel bound by any motion passed in one House of this Parliament.
The Hon. M. R. EGAN (Leader of the Opposition) [10.49]: I am not familiar with the issue raised by the Minister in his ministerial statement. However, I would have thought that before making the statement the Minister, as a matter of normal courtesy, would have advised the Opposition. The only notification I received was at the very instant before the Minister jumped to his feet to make his statement. Clearly, this is a breach of the normal courtesies that have always applied in this House. Certainly, in the period of almost three years during which I have been Leader of the Opposition, when the Minister's colleagues have intended making a ministerial statement reasonable notice has been given to me so that I have had the opportunity to familiarise myself with the general issue concerning the ministerial statement. But on this occasion there was absolutely no notice. As the Minister jumped to his feet he leaned over the table and said to me that he was about to make a ministerial statement. That the House has been ambushed indicates the Minister's sensitivity on an important subject.
The Hon. Patricia Forsythe: Did you tell us before you had certain documents tabled in the lower House?
The Hon. M. R. EGAN: The Hon. Patricia Forsythe has not been a member of this House for long but she should be aware of the protocol surrounding ministerial statements. I hope she is not advocating that the normal courtesies extended to members in this House should be done away with. It is a simple fact that when a Minister is to make a ministerial statement it is normal courtesy for the Opposition to be given reasonable notice that the statement is to be made. I have no doubt that both the Leader of the Opposition in the other place, who is familiar with the issue, and Dr Peter Macdonald, the honourable member for Manly, will respond appropriately to the Minister's statement. Further, I have no doubt that the honourable member for Manly, who is the main target of this attack by the Minister today, has a much better track record for honesty and for protecting the environment than either the Water Board or this Minister. I await with interest the response of the honourable member for Manly and the Leader of the Opposition in the other place to the rather cowardly attack that the Minister has made upon them today.
The Hon. R. S. L. JONES [10.52]: I too was shocked by the sudden ambush of the House.
The PRESIDENT: Order! I presume the honourable member has been nominated by his leader to speak on her behalf?
The Hon. R. S. L. JONES: Yes, Mr President. It is clear that this ministerial statement is a desperate attempt to try to discredit Dr Peter Macdonald. The same thing happened in the House yesterday on the question of separate metering of home units. Some people are paying more than others. Some pensioners are paying much less -
The Hon. R. J. Webster: On a point of order: the honourable member should know, and if he does not I am sure you, Mr President, will inform him, that he is required to address matters raised in the ministerial statement made today and not matters that I raised in the House yesterday.
The Hon. R. S. L. JONES: I will do just that.
Reverend the Hon. F. J. Nile: On a point of order: Mr President, you asked the honourable member whether he had been nominated by his leader. I wonder how he could be nominated when he had no knowledge that the Minister was to make a ministerial statement. Only leaders of parties are allowed to respond to ministerial statements.
The Hon. R. S. L. Jones: On the point of order: this is a weak attempt by Reverend the Hon. F. J. Nile to try to stifle my comments. He does not know what is going on in his own party, let alone my party.
The PRESIDENT: Order! The sessional orders quite clearly state that a leader of a party may respond or a member nominated by that leader. I do not think it is for me to seek to question the integrity of a member who makes a statement from the floor of the House that he has in fact been nominated by his leader.
The Hon. R. S. L. JONES: I did ask my leader before I rose to speak. I assure Reverend the Hon. F. J. Nile of that point - I should say the about to be not Reverend the Hon. F. J. Nile.
The PRESIDENT: Order! The honourable member will address the Minister's statement.
The Hon. R. S. L. JONES: I will try to do that if less interruptions are made. As I say, this ministerial statement is an attempt to discredit Dr Peter Macdonald, who has a sincere belief, which I share, that these incinerators are a health risk. The Minister admitted it was a risk because an assessment as to the risk will be available in September. The Minister did not mention whether tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin was emitted from the incinerator at Malabar. I am sure that it is. It is the most dangerous compound known to the human race. I am sure the Minister has no knowledge of the levels of tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin - 2,3,7,8 TCDD - that are being emitted from the Malabar incinerator. This is a low temperature incinerator which is burning plastics. The only way to get rid of it safely is by having a high temperature incinerator somewhere in the Simpson Desert, well away from inhabited areas.
These incinerators pose a risk. I have received complaints from residents of Manly of the risks from their incinerator. Not only is it unsightly, but it produces fume problems. It is antisocial to have an incinerator in an inhabited area. Heaven knows what is being screened for the Malabar incinerator. Much plastics and I imagine human waste is being incinerated at Malabar, but only partly combusted at low temperature. There is no guarantee all the waste will be combusted. We can be sure that much of the PICs - products of incomplete combustion - being emitted from the incinerator are being ingested by the residents of the area. It is difficult to quantify but it is a risk for the residents of Malabar as it was for the residents of Manly. This material should not be incinerated at low temperatures within suburban areas. It may be a better idea to incinerate it rather than use it as landfill but if it is to be incinerated that must be done outside inhabited areas.
There was a debate in this House on high temperature disposal of intractable waste. No one wanted that intractable waste high temperature incinerator in the city or the country, especially not at Corowa, Parkes, Bogan Gate or Narrandera. The residents of those towns fought that proposal because of problems with high temperature incineration. High temperature incineration is less dangerous than the low temperature incinerator at Malabar. I would like the Malabar incinerator to be closed; it would cost approximately $1 per household to achieve this. The incinerator must be closed permanently and decommissioned. It is an unacceptable way to dispose of heaven knows what type of waste.
The incinerators are not a significant health threat but a review of operating practices is warranted.