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Wednesday, 27 February 1985
Page: 279


Senator MASON(6.05) —I am very glad to add my comments on the land use report of the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment for a number of reasons. The first is that this topic is obviously important and has been long overdue for major study. The second reason is more personal in that after seven years I have finally parted company with the Committee. My colleague, Senator David Vigor, the Australian Democrat senator for South Australia, will take my place on that Committee with distinction, I am sure.

I would like to place on record the interest and challenge the Committee has provided to me under the chairmanship of, first, Senator Don Jessop and, secondly, Senator Gerry Jones. I confess that I shall miss the good company and mental stimulation of journeys and meetings of that Committee which is rightly at the cutting edge of government policy in an area where scientific and technological change are major elements of society. They will become increasingly so as time goes on.

This report is, of course, just a beginning. But I thought it especially useful because it has been very much concerned with practicalities, as Senator Jones has said. It has been aimed consciously, I believe, at a level much lower and more attainable than an ivory tower. This is, of course, the best possible result of committee work-to be practical above all things and to put forward what is possible. All of us become fond of asserting what should happen. It seems so easy to reform the world until one gets down to the details and takes into account all the human and other circumstances involved.

Having said that, I would like to look more to the future. The Committee, in discussing an approach to the land use inquiry, rightly perceived soil conservation as a major problem in Australia. I do not know of anyone who is at all informed in this area and who would not take that view. The trouble is that the matter of soil conservation has, like road accidents, become a kind of cliche. As a result, nothing effective is being done about it. The solutions, such as they are, do not even begin to address the scope and enormous size of the problem. On Monday I spoke very briefly about this matter but I would like to develop it a little further because I think it is of tremendous importance to this country and, indeed, to this Committee.

It is a fact that all of us in this world depend for our very lives and continued existence on a very thin, fragile mantle of top soil which is a product of centuries, perhaps even millenia, of natural processes. Without it we would all be dead, and quickly. With increasing numbers of human beings and the loss of top soil we have taken definite steps closer to malnutrition, even starvation. It is on that level of importance that we ought to make our judgments. We will need, among other things, to change our views and our social attitudes in many respects. An important point is to recognise the relationship between the animal world, of which all human beings are a part, and the plant world.

This was strikingly brought home to me some years ago when I visited the city of Shanghai where all the sewage of the city is processed and used as fertiliser on the fields of the surrounding communities which are, indeed, the food bowl of that great city. The process is carried out in a manner to which I believe no one could object. There is no danger to health, no odours and no problems. The entire process is carried out efficiently and cheaply. Indeed, the process has a certain elegance, a certain appropriateness, which is in full accord with the symbiotic nature of this planet's life forms and which we ignore at our peril.

It is those among us who, like the Government of New South Wales, are spending millions of dollars, and propose to spend millions of dollars more, on piping sewage further out to sea who are the truly indecent and perverse protagonists in this argument. The fact that that process has so often resulted in raw sewage being deposited on Sydney's surf beaches is unpleasant enough but it is not the worst element. The worst element is that this process in effect shifts huge quantities of our rare resources of topsoil out to sea and wastes them permanently.

As food is grown on the land and human wastes resulting from it are not returned to the soil, so the soil is diminished. With very few exceptions our whole approach to the collection, treatment and disposal of sewage in Australia has been to aim for the lowest capital and operating costs within the constraints of health and inoffensiveness and a certain prejudice which is not at all in accord with modern thinking and our understanding of the true nature of the planet's welfare.

There are two prominent exceptions to this rule-Melbourne's Werribee sewage farm and the Bolivar sewage treatment plant near Adelaide. In summer the Werribee farm produces over 200 megalitres of raw sewage a day to apply to 4,300 hectares of red-brown, silty, clay loam. Besides providing effective sewage treatment, as many as 15,000 head of cattle or 50,000 head of sheep can be fattened on that farm. That is, of course, a practical and useful result. Quite a large proportion of Adelaide's milk supply comes from a dairy farm irrigated with unchlorinated secondary effluent pumped from the Bolivar treatment plant outfall to water about 300 hectares of fodder crop. This Bolivar effluent also is used successfully to irrigate wine grape crops.

We must return to the realisation that sewage is a valuable resource. Every year in this country our population of 15 million produces sewage containing about 54 million kilograms of nitrogen and 57 million kilograms of phosphorous, the vast majority of which we cannot be bothered reclaiming. Until the mass introduction of the water closet in 1810 sewage was rightfully considered to be a very valuable resource. There were lengthy debates in Westminster about whether landlord or tenant owned the tenant's sewage. From then on household waste was discharged into municipal sewers along with storm water. Soil drainage found its way into the nearest waterway. Understandably, this created havoc with the quality of the water, to the point where one person wrote a letter to the London Times in 1868 using river water as ink. Steps had to be taken, and indeed they were. Most sewage was disposed of in one of two ways. Either it was dumped in the sea through sewage outfall pipes built along the shore or it was recycled on sewage irrigation farms. Even with the lack of technical knowledge at that time concerning sewage treatments, the sewage farms were remarkably successful. In 1873 members of the British Medical Association attended a gala luncheon at the Romford sewage farm. The menu included trout caught in the stream below the outfall, beef from cattle raised on sewage grass, milk and cheese from sewage-fed cows, vegetables grown on the farm and effluent served in crystal decanters.

Of course, there are problems associated with the recycling of sewage. For sludge to be used safely and effectively, it must be carefully monitored and industrial waste disposal must be stringently controlled. However, even with current levels of heavy metals and complex industrial organics, which are not severe in less heavily industrialised areas, sludge would have a monetary value ranging from $10 to $50 a tonne, depending upon its nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels, when sold as fertiliser. Indeed, 10,000 tonnes of granulated, heat-sterilised sludge from the Bolivar treatment plant is sold annually to market gardeners, orchardists and home gardeners.

Life depends to a large extent on the carbon, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus cycles remaining unbroken. We have ignored that fact for too long and it must eventually catch up with us. Quite soon we will run out of the petroleum needed to make artificial nitrate fertilisers and the phosphate mines will be exhausted. We must start planning for that day before it comes. Because of that we cannot continue to tolerate the purblind, stupid, wasteful approach of governments such as the Government of New South Wales, which sees the answer to this problem as taking a valuable asset and spending millions of dollars putting it further and further out to sea. Their motivation is almost impossible to divine. I will quote very briefly from Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables, interestingly enough written over one century ago. He wrote:

All the human and animal manure which the world wastes, if returned to the land, instead of being thrown into the sea, would suffice to nourish the world.

Those piles of ordure collected at street corners, those carts of mud jolted at night through the streets, those frightful barrels of the night-man, those fetid streams-do you know what they are? They are the flowering field, the green grass, the mint and thyme and sage, the game, the cattle, the satisfied lowing of the heavy oxen at night, the perfumed hay, the golden wheat, the bread on your table, the warm blood in your veins, health, joy, life.

I commend those words to the Government of New South Wales.