Newry Island residents go to the Ombudsman

Some of the 42 Newry Island residents who face bills of between $9,200 and $15,000 to connect their properties to the sewer.The NSW Ombudsman is being asked to investigate a complaint by a group of Newry Island resident regarding ‘excessive charges’ by Bellingen Council for connecting to the sewerage system.
Nanjing Night Net

The 42 residents of rural-residential properties are being charged between $9,200 and $15,000 to connect their properties to the sewerage system.

They commissioned Carolyn Reid of CAR Productions to prepare a report titled ‘Newry Island sewer extension by Bellingen Shire Council’.

Ms Reid’s report concluded: “The situation faced by the residents of 42 properties on Newry Island is unjust and inequitable”.

“It has come about as a result of a set of circumstances for which they were not responsible, and yet they are being forced to incur huge expense to correct,” she said.

The Kalang River was closed to commercial oyster harvesting in mid 2008 as a result of an outbreak of Norovirus which caused several people to fall ill after consuming oysters grown in the Kalang. Norovirus is a contagious cause of acute gastroenteritis spread by human faecal contamination.

Ms Reid said: “Bellingen Council denies that its Sewerage Treatment Plant was responsible, but they upgraded it anyway. Council denied it was their sewer system at the Gundamain Caravan Park at fault, but replaced a manhole cover and continue to test as the problem persists at that location. In fact, based on the only evidence available to the public, the strongest causative link between the Norovirus outbreak and human faecal contamination of the Kalang River is the surcharge from the caravan park site, but Council will not admit to this possibility”.

“It was Council’s own sewer pump stations that failed in the floods of 2009, both on the sewered end of Newry Island and in the centre of Urunga village, in both cases causing massive raw sewerage discharges (over 10ML in the centre of town), and it is Council that has failed to maintain adequate monitoring or administration of the 2800 OSMSs in the Shire until forced into it by this event.

“A series of actions have been orchestrated by Council in response to the closure of the Kalang River. With every appearance of being proactive and ‘consulting’ with stakeholders including residents, this Council has performed many processes over the last three-and-a-half years. Sadly, none could be described as ‘due process’. The residents might have been listened to, but their voices certainly went unheard,” Ms Reid says.

“There are several complaints as to the conduct of the Council and the outcomes resulting:

*Council’s interaction with residents has been a hollow facade of community consultation as they withheld crucial information from the residents and thus negated the purpose and the process of residents’ submissions.

* Council has not provided residents with empirical data or factual substantiation of its assertion that their OSMSs are a major contributor to the water quality issues or that sewering the island will solve the issues.

* Council has never wavered from their position that connection to reticulated sewer is the only option available, dismissing completely the option of upgrading their existing systems despite the success of this approach in similar circumstances.

* Council has not wavered from their position that residents should fund the bulk of the infrastructure and dismissed without due consideration their concerns of

hardship or the simple inability to pay.

* Council has done little to seek or obtain alternative funding or to apply the well

settled principles of social equity to spread the infrastructure costs across the wider community commensurate with the broader benefits espoused for the project.

* It must not be forgotten that in 2008, the former General Manager boasted that all of Council’s water and sewer capital works were “fully funded without borrowing or new grant assistance required, with sufficient reserves to fund all future works.”

* Council has indulged in disseminating misinformation to residents, presenting

incorrect data to persuade them that their private funding of public infrastructure is a well established precedent across many NSW Councils and Local Water Authorities when this is patently untrue.

* Council shows disregard for, and intends to wilfully breach the responsible lending provisions contained within the National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009 in its offer to extend loans to residents who have no demonstrable capacity to repay them.

* Council has threatened residents with caveats registered over the title to their homes if they don’t or can’t pay the exorbitant amounts sought but avoid putting this threat in writing.

* Council is exploiting its position as a monopoly service provider to force residents into unwanted and arguably unwarranted infrastructure charges.

* Council is discriminating against this group of 42 households, charging them many times more than other residents in the same street, for the same service.

* Council has allowed the choice of one sewer infrastructure technology over another to trigger a total change of funding regime, shifting the bulk of the burden directly onto the residents, which is manifestly unjustifiable and inequitable.

* Council is pushing the sewer project through as a matter of urgency where none exists, as the oyster industry on the Kalang River has been decimated by an outbreak of QX disease which has already wiped out most of the stock. This

situation is expected to persist for years leaving ample time to explore more

equitable funding regimes.

She said the residents of Newry Island had a significant interest in the water quality of the Kalang River that flowed around their island and most generally accept that connection to the sewer might be a reasonable solution in the long term.

“However, the funding model is for many, completely untenable and for others will cause hardship, but this does not seem to be of concern to those who are meant to represent them on Bellingen council,” she said.

As well as taking the resident’s case to the Ombudsman, they have called on State MPs and Ministers to intervene on their behalf, to initiate debate on fair funding models, to investigate the conduct of the Bellingen Council and explore a fair and equitable solution to their plight.

Connecting to the sewer system at Newry Island has been a matter which has a long history, according to Bellingen Council.

Alison Pattinson, the Acting Director Environmental Health and Planning, said Council had engaged in extensive consultation with residents over a number of years. “Concerns raised by residents over the costs of connection to the sewer have been heard and acted on by Council who resolved to offer a loan over a 10 year period to cover the estimated cost of low pressure pumps for connection to the sewer.”

“In addition, to provide further financial relief to Newry Island residents, the cost of extension of the sewer to Newry Island of $240,000 is already being borne by Council’s sewer fund and Council has resolved to waive the usual $2,375 sewer contribution and $102 sewer application fee,” she said.

Ms Pattinson said Council recognised that there were multiple potential contaminants for the Kalang River. “The Kalang River Water Quality Improvement Plan which was adopted by Council on July 27, 2011 is the working document which is being used to guide a range of initiatives aimed at improving the water quality of the Kalang River and to minimise risk of pollution.”

“Other initiatives include:

•Improvements to systems for holiday cabins and the Scout Hall in Atherton Drive

•Testing and investigations at Gundamain and Brigalow Caravan Parks

•OSMS inspections, investigations and consideration of any required remediation works

•Bacteriological and Faecal sterol water sampling of river

“The choice of sewer infrastructure technology including a low pressure pump at each residence was based on advice from other Councils with similar situations based on purchase price and whole of life costing. The independent environmental consultants who assessed the option of residents upgrading their existing On Site Sewerage Management systems indicated that the costs would be similar to the sewer connection (or perhaps even higher) but due to the Island’s soil profile this would not completely reduce the pollution risk.

“The Newry Island sewer upgrade project has been under active consideration as an option for over 3 years and was adopted by Council in July 2011 after detailed consultation including a series of meetings with a representative group of Island residents. Additional involvement by residents in the upgrade has included a representative being part of the tender assessment process for the technology associated with the system.

“The water quality of the Kalang River has been and is of on-going concern to Council and Council will continue to implement the initiatives outlined in the water quality improvement plan,” Ms Pattinson concluded.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.