Enquiry into deep sewerage in the Cockburn area

Extract from Hansard
[COUNCIL - Wednesday, 17 November 2010]
p8938a-8940a
Hon Brian Ellis; Hon Lynn MacLaren

Standing Committee on Environment and Public Affairs — Eighteenth Report —
“Inquiry into Deep Sewerage in the Cockburn Area”—Motion

Committee was interrupted after Hon Brian Ellis had moved the following motion —
That the report be noted.

HON BRIAN ELLIS: The five-minute speech I had planned to deliver on this committee report is turning into a
bit of a marathon—I started it about four weeks ago!
I had mentioned the Minister for Water’s announcement about the remaining areas of Quinns Rocks being
sewered within the next two years. Work on the biggest of the three projects—more than 350 lots, bounded by
Hazel and Robinson Avenues, Tapping Way and View Terrace—is expected to begin in April 2011. Quinns
Rocks is the fourth project to be awarded under the revamped program, and the third for 2010–2011, following
those at Port Hedland, Dawesville and Spearwood. But, more importantly, when those works are completed the
Quinns Rocks part of the infill sewerage program will be finished, which I am sure the people of Quinns Rocks
will be pleased to hear. Again, that can, in part, be put down to the inquiry that this committee undertook in that
it drew to the attention of the government the community expectation that the infill sewerage program would
continue.

In conclusion, this was a positive inquiry that recognised that the expectation of communities is that the infill
sewerage program should be completed. I thank the government for the resumption of the program after the last
budget. I commend the report to the house.

HON LYNN MacLAREN: I want to speak to this report and note the comments made by Hon Brian Ellis, chair
of our committee, and thank him for his summary of the inquiry.

This was actually the first inquiry that I was involved with on the environment and public affairs committee, and
it was a very optimistic and positive experience for me. This issue affected the South Metropolitan Region—my
region—and it has been, I think, positively dealt with by the government. It was an experience of working
diligently within the systems that we have in place and seeing some success, which is worthy of note.

I want to applaud the residents of Spearwood, particular, John Cunai, who was chairperson of the Spearwood
Community Association. Its excellent submission to the environment and public affairs committee was a very
important place to start this inquiry. These people were faced with a problem in their community and they did
everything in their power to demonstrate that they had a serious problem and that somehow the government had
let them down. They called out for help, and it was good that the government was able to respond.

The environment and public affairs committee is the committee that petitions come to; we receive a huge volume
of disparate petitions from all over the place. It is difficult to dedicate the time required to look into an issue
carefully and thoroughly, and this inquiry took some months to complete. We reviewed submissions from the
Department of Water and the Water Corporation, of course, as the chairman has described, but I wanted to give
members some sense of the communities involved in this. After the people in Spearwood had spoken out, it was
obvious that people all around this state were in need, and the launch of the public inquiry gave those people an
opportunity to express their concerns as well. The inquiry was not limited to Cockburn, although that is where
the petition was centred.

We received submissions from—amongst others—Port Hedland; Bridgetown; Greenbushes; Harvey; Manjimup;
Gingin; Boyup Brook; Kalamunda; Fremantle; Murray; the Peel region; Rockingham; and Kwinana. We became
aware that deep sewerage had been neglected and that there were serious issues, particularly for new
developments. One of the most interesting submissions, in my view, was from around the Murray River, where,
we learned, huge population growth is creating stress, and that not only was the deep sewerage system holding
back residential development, but also it was threatening the life of the river. I will recap what the infill sewerage
program was about, because this has been going on for some time. It was established in 1994 as a 10-year
program to eliminate the health and environmental risks posed by septic systems in Perth and country centres,
and to assist in the orderly development and redevelopment of land. The aim was to provide 100 000 sewerage
connections that were costed, at the time, at about $800 million over 10 years. Had it been pursued diligently, the
program would have been completed by 2005. Annual funding for the program was reduced by the government
in 2001 to enable water infrastructure projects to proceed; we now know that that was code for the desalination
plant. That resulted in the program completion being extended by 25 years. The pot of money that the Water
Corporation and the Department of Water had was not increased; funds were merely redirected to another
project.

Residents of Spearwood, Hamilton Hill and Coogee petitioned the Legislative Council back in May 2006; I was
not in the house at that time. Hon Barbara Scott, who was a member for the South Metropolitan Region, tabled
the petition in the upper house. At that time, the government met with the Spearwood Community Association
and heard accounts and evidence of the dire situation. The responsible minister at the time, Hon John Kobelke,
initiated a review of the infill sewerage program and the priorities on health grounds; it was a review of the
health situation. This report was reviewed by the committee. It revealed major on-site effluent disposal
problems. In December 2006, the government announced that an additional $12 million would be added to the
Water Corporation budget to bring forward the infill works in the Cockburn area. Work was confirmed to begin
in June 2009.

Members can see that the residents would have been hopeful, yet again. Although they knew that the project was
delayed, they were hopeful that it would be completed, so their expectations began to rise. In May 2009,
however, the Barnett government announced the cancellation of the infill program for four years because of the
global financial crisis. The 2009–10 capital budget for the Water Corporation did not provide any funds to the
infill sewerage program in its forward estimates, so the citizens of Cockburn and Spearwood, who had seen the
bulldozers and the diggers go through their neighbourhoods and were expecting them to commence work, were
particularly disappointed.

The inquiry by the upper house Standing Committee on Environment and Public Affairs began again on 9
September 2009 in response to the concerns that were raised in the petition. The petition called on the
government to release funding to continue and complete the infill sewerage program in the City of Cockburn. As
someone who attended some of those community meetings, my heart went out to these people who had been
waiting very patiently for some years for this program to come to their area. Pressures for subdivisions in
Cockburn are intense; it is not that far from the city, and people want to be able to live in that area. They were
not actually able to subdivide blocks because they did not have infill sewerage. Even more important than that
were the various health issues that people were reporting. As members can imagine, people kept believing that
these ancient septic systems would be replaced by infill sewerage, so they did not set aside the funds to replace
them, and they inevitably began to fail. People were living in conditions that were highly publicised on
television, and we would only expect such conditions in Third World countries. It was quite shocking to discover
that our infrastructure program had failed these people so badly.

The inquiry looked into the specific situation in Cockburn, as well as the other areas in Western Australia that I
have mentioned, and the overall funding and progress of the state’s infill sewerage program. The committee
decided to inquire into and report on deep sewerage in Cockburn; the funding, priorities and progress of the
state’s infill sewerage program; whether there had been any delay in progressing that program; and any issues
arising out of the delay, such as costs, health impacts and social and environmental issues. We also looked at
similar sewerage issues in other areas. We then included this great little additional criterion in the inquiry,
specifically “any other relevant matter”; one never really knows what is going to come up under any other
relevant matters, but we took the risk and included it.

We found that in addition to the $85 million remaining of the $800 million that had initially been allocated to the
infill sewerage program, the Water Corporation estimated that a further $129 million would be required to
complete the project areas. Like every major project in Western Australia, the infill sewerage program was
impacted by the mining boom. Workers left to get higher paid jobs up north and were no longer available to
work on projects such as infill sewerage, so we were having to pay more and more to get people to stay in the
city to complete these projects. That was one of the reasons for the costs increasing. There was also the issue of
whether equipment was available to complete the job. Costs really escalated quite considerably. It is important to
note that, in spite of that, the government bit the bullet to complete the task, regardless of the cost. At least, it set
out to complete the task; it will hopefully do so.

The committee, in its investigations, also found that serious health and environmental risks are still present in the
existing septic systems, and one of our recommendations was that they be replaced. The committee was pleased
to report on 10 November 2009. During the course of the inquiry, however, Hon Dr Graham Jacobs, MLA, the
Minister for Water, advised that work on the program in the City of Cockburn, which was deferred indefinitely
in May 2009, would begin in approximately two months and that residents would have infill sewerage by June
2011. I can tell members that there was a party in Cockburn, and I attended it, at Manning Park; residents were
very pleased that they had achieved this.

In conclusion, I want to speak to the report tabled not only because of my personal experience of actually being
an effective member of Parliament and seeing something being delivered for my constituents, but also to advise
the citizens of Western Australia that petitions can work and that governments can listen and respond. To me, it
was a hopeful thing for those residents to have this program completed. They were pretty shattered because they
had been campaigning for a long time and had been waiting for so long, and they really did not feel that they
were being heard. It was particularly important that there was an attempt to complete this program. The
commitment came from this government to complete the program, even though it had not made the initial
commitment.

When people in the communities of Western Australia, as well as people in government, follow the processes
and trust that the system can work, we can achieve great things. It is not just a matter of going through the
processes, but also of utilising the processes that we have in place to teach, learn and act effectively. Our
committee is learning to get the message out there about our achievements, so that instead of feeling as though
this is a hollow chamber on the hill, we can show that there is work being done that matters to the everyday lives
of Western Australians. That message should get out there as much as possible. Petitions can make a difference;
one voice can make a difference. The story of deep sewerage in Cockburn illustrates this. I would like to finish
with a quote from Anne Frank, who said —

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

Question put and passed.