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Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works
Christmas Island infrastructure upgrade
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Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works
CHAIR (Senator McLucas)
Christmas Island infrastructure upgrade
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Content WindowParliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works - 11/03/2010 - Christmas Island infrastructure upgrade
CHAIR (Senator McLucas) —I welcome Mr Clay and Mr Yates from the Attorney-General’s Department. The purpose of this briefing is to update the committee—and I thank you for offering to provide the briefing—about the infrastructure and services upgrade on Christmas Island. Committee members will be aware we had correspondence over the Christmas break that referred to the urgent requirement for works on Christmas Island, and the purpose of this briefing is to update the committee as to why it was urgent and what you are doing.
As you know, this is being recorded by Hansard. There is a set of words that basically says you are not giving evidence under oath but please tell the truth because that is really important. Those are obviously not the exact words! But welcome; I will hand over to you to brief the committee.
Mr Yates —Thank you for the opportunity to brief the committee. We have two documents to table that are being copied at the moment. They describe the two major projects—the waste water upgrade and the power station upgrade. We have laid the briefing out addressing the various points in accordance with the requirements of the Public Works Committee. Until we get the copies handy, I would prefer to stick with an overview and then take you through each of the documents in turn.
The overview is, of course, that the Australian government in October last year made the decision to increase the detention capacity on Christmas Island to cope with the increase in boat arrivals. That meant that the Attorney-General’s Department, which provides the state type services on the island, needed to undertake fairly quick action to upgrade—
Senator FORSHAW —What sort of services?
Mr Yates —State type services. We are in an unusual role in that respect for most Commonwealth agencies, but we needed to undertake some fairly quick action to upgrade some of the essential facilities to cope with that increase, and the two most critical ones are the waste water system and the power system.
The waste water system is essential because the system that is installed at the immigration detention centre was designed around its capacity of 800 people as a maximum. Clearly, the systems will not cope adequately with numbers going up to around 1,700 or 1,800 at the immigration detention site at North West Point. So we were able to engage our contractor—and I use the word contractor here because, whilst not strictly correct, it describes it accurately—the Western Australian Water Corporation, who operate under a service delivery arrangement with us. So it is very similar to a contract but not quite. They provide all the water and waste water services. So we were able to engage them to investigate what was required to cope with the upgrades that Immigration are supporting. They have prepared a detailed plan which we are implementing. It is a funded plan, with the additional funds provided by the government, that will essentially rebuild on the existing sewerage treatment plant at Smith Point a new facility that makes maximum use of the existing resources but which more than doubles the capacity of the site. This will give us the capability to deal with the increased number of detainees and the increased number of people there associated with the detention centre—these range from contractors and additional doctors and nurses to guards and a couple of extra police. You will appreciate that there is a substantial growth in the population.
The plans for that are in the brief that we have provided for the actual waste water plant upgrade. We are very satisfied with the work that Water Corporation is proposing there. It is a very smart re-use of existing facilities that substantially increases the plant’s capacity within the existing footprint of the site and, as I say, makes use of existing facilities such as outfall pipes and so on.
There is one component of that that is not yet complete in terms of the full planning—and this is alerted to in the brief on the waste water system—and that is that we also need to get some further advice from them on some issues such as the capacity of the pipes from the immigration detention centre at North West Point through the system to the waste water plant. So you will see from the briefing that the cost of upgrading the existing Smith Point site is around $18 million. We have a budget of some $22 million, so we are able to operate at the moment within the allocated funds with, we believe, sufficient funding to be able to deal with the residual works regarding the pipe upgrades that will be provided to us quite shortly.
In terms of the power station we had already plans in place to replace some of the existing generators that are 40 years old and had gone through a contract process to identify replacement generators. When the increased demand came in, the power authority, which is a business unit within the Attorney-General’s department, assessed the power requirements and identified that if we increased the number of generators that we were planning to purchase out of the existing procurement action, we could comfortably meet the increased power demand. So we have proceeded through a further contract process to confirm that we can acquire the additional generators at the same price that have been done through the tendered process and we have the plans in place now and it is all in the brief showing the location of the additional generators. We are very close to finalising the acquisition of the generators themselves.
I think a point to note here is that the total cost to upgrade the power station is around $30 million, of which $8 million is funding that we already had aside for the replacement of the existing units to meet the community’s own requirements, and we had the additional funding to enable us to buy the additional generators. One aspect there is that we are acquiring them at a faster rate than we might have had to do in the past because of the rate of increasing population, rather than staging it over a longer period of time. At this point I might see if there are any particular questions or if we should proceed to going through the individual briefs.
CHAIR —I have some questions around the timing that I want to go to. I wonder if you could take us through the briefs and that then may become evident.
Mr Yates —Certainly. If we go to the one that is headed ‘PWC briefing notes on the waste water treatment plant’, the first part is the objective, and that is clearly to ensure that waste water can meet the potential demand based on the advice from Immigration about the total number of detainees, the number of support staff and our own assessments of things like the additional police, teachers and contractors that we are putting on the island to provide the support services that are needed. There is a historical background which talks about the construction of the original plant at Smith Point that was built in 1994, and it has been supporting the resident population of up to about 1,500 people quite satisfactorily, with the daily inflow of around 400 kilolitres.
If we go to the next point about the need for the work, the increase in the population has raised the flow rates now from 400 to around 1,000 and has placed the system under significant stress. As with most items of plant and equipment, you try to avoid running them at 100 per cent of capacity because you then do not have any ability to turn them off for maintenance, and if you have a failure things become critical quite quickly. So clearly we needed to produce a new solution to the problem, which was either to have an entirely new plant or to upgrade the existing plant. The design parameters in looking at that were listed there, where the total island population was projected to increase to about 4,000 by March, and that is fairly accurate at this stage, and we have listed the components there of immigration population and residents.
Mr FORREST —What is the indigenous population, the normal population?
Mr Yates —It oscillates between about 1,000 at its low point and 1,500 at its high point, and that historically has been driven around mining activity. When the mine is going full-bore and you have got tourism it will have about 1,500 people. If the mine is a bit quieter in the low seasons you will be down to about 1,000 over the long-term historic average. It has been as high as 3,000 in the distant past, but more recently it is around 1,000 to 1,500. We typically will say that the average residential population is about 1,100.
Over the page we talk about a brief description of the proposal to upgrade the plant to process 1.75 megalitres a day, a substantial increase on the existing process. We then looked at the other options there. There was consideration given early in the piece to building a new greenfield site, but the cost and environmental clearance difficulties there suggested that that was not the most appropriate way to go, and the Water Corporation’s advice was that they could rebuild Smith Point using the existing facilities in the shortest available time.
There is a brief note there under ‘reasons for adopting the proposed course of action’. There is a mention there of the central area workshops. That is an old site in the middle of the national park about halfway between the detention centre and the settlement area that is not national park. It is crown land. It was originally the railway workshops for the mine. It is no longer used as the railway workshops. It was a possible site if we had to build a greenfield site. Building a sewage treatment plant in the middle of the national park of course is not a particularly desirable result. So, whilst we looked at it to check whether it was technically feasible, and it was, on cost and environmental grounds it made a lot more sense to reuse the facilities at the Smith Point site and upgrade that if that was technically possible, and Water Corporation’s advice is that that is appropriate.
The other problem with the central area workshops, as noted in the paragraph immediately above that, is that it would really only be an option for around two years. There are other potential better uses of the central area workshop sites—for example, by the park—than as a sewage treatment plant. So we were very happy when Water Corporation was able to show that, for technical and cost reasons as well as the environmental benefits, we could rebuild the Smith Point site and make use of the existing facilities.
We have done environmental assessments under the West Australian regime and given consideration to the requirements of the EPBC Act. Because we are doing the work on the existing site, that removes most of the environmental constraints. We are staying within the existing footprint and the water quality from the outfalls will be equal or better than the current approvals. So we minimise the environmental clearance process.
CHAIR —In terms of the water quality, the term ‘tertiary treatment’ is the term I use. Is this up to tertiary treatment?
Mr Yates —I believe so, but I would like to confirm that that interpretation is correct. Water Corporation has not used the term ‘tertiary’ with us. I am familiar with it but I would like to confirm back to you that ‘tertiary treatment’ is an appropriate way of describing it. We will certainly take that on notice and confirm that that is the case.
There are no heritage considerations at this particular site and there has been extensive consultation with the shire, Environment through Parks Australia, Immigration and, as I say, our own West Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, who operate to provide environmental advice to us again under another service delivery arrangement.
We then list the technical treatment. Rather than going through each detail of the system that is listed there, it is possibly more useful if I ask Mr Clay to talk briefly about the sequence of events. One of the very satisfactory things about the way Water Corporation has come up with this proposal is that, by doing things in the right sequence, we can keep the existing plant running whilst the new equipment is constructed around it, and they have a transfer process where they can activate that new equipment sequentially.
Mr Clay —First of all, I will give you a very brief overview of the key improvements that will come out of the new sewerage treatment works. There are not many: one of them is a new inlet works, which is like a screening arrangement at the start of the sewerage treatment works. There are also a better aeration system, separate clarifiers and a better ultraviolet disinfection system before the sewage goes to ocean outfall. There are some real advantages in this.
We went through the sequence of events with the Water Corp people. They will have to keep the plant running all the time that the new works are going in, so the arrangement that they will have to embark upon is fairly tricky, but they are well qualified and they have a great plan to do it. The first arrangement will be to do the pads—the foundations—for the new building works and then put temporary dewatering systems on the slabs that they install. Then they arrange for the electrics to be installed and made ready to go so that all they have to do is turn a switch. They then start work on building new drying beds at the back of the site for the sludge. That will involve building some retaining wall because it is a fairly steep site. They then clean out the existing aerating tanks—they will have separate, temporary aerators running at the same time. They will then complete the inlet works. These are the screening works—quite innovative screening works that they are using. From memory they are German made. They have them on the boat, basically, at the moment.
Once those works are in place they will start work on the clarifiers. These are the large circular tanks that provide settling and sludge removal to go into the drying beds. They have all of this ready to go, so they will basically be running two systems on one site—they will just have to connect a pipe at the very last moment, which they will do overnight when they have minimal flow. They have a contingency in place to have storage at the pump stations so that they can utilise the pump station storage for the one or two hours—whatever it is—until the time they have to connect the final pipe, and then everything will work from there. It is actually done pretty smartly.
Ms HALL —Sorry—when the new system comes on line the old system goes down?
Mr Clay —They are utilising parts of the old system—upgrading as well as installing new componentry—so it is a mix of construction that they are doing. They have standby generators—it is all ready to go.
Mr Yates —To answer your question a little further, most of the existing facilities are able to be reused. In the documentation we have tabled there is an image of what the system will look like. The two lighter grey tanks are existing facilities that will be reused—
Mr Clay —The long ones.
Mr Yates —with a new process. The most significant new part is the large tanks. I believe they are the clarifying tanks.
Mr Clay —They are the new ones, yes.
Mr Yates —The way they have worked it out is quite clever in being able to reuse virtually all of the installed physical hardware that is there at the moment with a much better inlet system. That is one of our problems at the moment. The quantity of material coming in is overwhelming the screening facility of the current system, so they are having to clean it a lot to keep it operational. The ability to process material through the existing plant is not fast enough to cope with the amount that is coming in—hence the additional infrastructure to increase the volume that can be coped with at any one time.
With respect to the question on tertiary treatment, we actually have the senior engineer who designed this willing to take calls, so I might ask Mr Clay to give him a call and get confirmation.
CHAIR —Phone a friend!
Mr Yates —Yes!
Ms HALL —Is this a pump-out system with an ocean outlet?
Mr Yates —That is correct.
Ms HALL —How far out?
Mr Yates —They are using the existing system. I do not believe it goes any great distance. The reason is that Christmas Island is a seamount and within 100 metres of the shore you are in water depths of 300 or 400 metres. So the outfall pipe does not go any great physical distance. It basically cannot because of the extreme depths of the water. I do not know the length of the current pipe. We are planning to use that again. Steve can probably ask that question directly of Water Corp, but it does not go any great distance because the water becomes very deep. We are talking exceptional depths, not 100 metres or so. It becomes hundreds of metres and then kilometres within a very short distance of the island.
Mr FORREST —I am waiting for you to finish your brief before I ask my questions. Have you finished your general brief?
Mr Yates —I think so, yes. The rest of the brief talks about the other parts of the requirements of the PWC, including what codes and standards are applied, any acoustics issues—
Ms HALL —Are there any acoustics issues?
Mr Yates —No.
Mr FORREST —I will just put my question on the table and you can decide whether you answer it now or later. The committee’s last experience with Christmas Island was a bit of a disaster, with massive cost blowouts attributed to two things. One was the lack of performance of the crane on the wharf. One of the things that annoyed me at the time was a reference to doing work in isolated locations. You have given us a very detailed cost estimate, but does this take into account the aspect of doing work in remote locations and other things that can go wrong, especially with that crane? I want your assurance that those contingencies are being catered for.
Mr Yates —I can give that assurance with high levels of confidence. The crane on Flying Fish Cove was rebuilt to basically as-new standard 1½ years ago. We spent well over $1 million bringing it up to an as-new standard. This was based on engineering assessments which drew the conclusion that because of the rate of work for the immigration detention centre the crane had a service load put on it at a much higher rate than you would normally expect for a crane. One of the engineers made the comment to me that in two years the crane had had 10 years worth of work put through it compared to what you would expect. So it needed a substantial rebuild, which was done, and it has been back up and in service successfully for the last year with no issues.
We also have an alternative crane on Nui Nui which we were able to use to replace the main crane when we took it out of service for its major rework. That worked very successfully for the year that the major crane was being rebuilt. So we have two fully operational tower cranes on the island at the moment, which gives us a level of redundancy. We are very confident that the cranes will continue to operate effectively for the future. They have been operating effectively. We have effective maintenance regimes in place for our port manager to keep both cranes operational. I have no indications at the moment to suggest that there any difficulties with the cranes.
Secondly, on the question about isolation, the Water Corporation has a lot of experience providing these services on both Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. They have been doing it for us for quite a number of years. Their ability to estimate the Christmas Island factor for the costs is very good because of that experience.
They also install these plants in remote parts of Western Australia so they, as an organisation, have a great deal of depth of experience in dealing with the remoteness. We are very confident about the costs that they are providing and about their ability to deliver with the available funds.
Mr FORREST —What about the generators?
Mr Yates —Much the same with the generators. The difference there is that the Indian Ocean Territories Power Authority is a business unit of the Attorney-General’s Department. It has an on-island manager who is a senior experienced engineer. In fact, he was one of the senior engineers in Parliament House for quite a number of years, a gentleman by the name of John Carter. He has extensive experience in running power stations in remote parts of Western Australia with mining operations. The company that we selected through the tender process is also extremely experienced in doing remote area power station installations. We have done an extraordinary amount of work on both of these projects to be comfortable that the time frames are achievable given the shipping issues. Most people would probably be aware that you get a ship every six to eight weeks. If you miss a ship, there is a six- to eight-week delay. I think a big part of the confidence for those two comes from the fact that the two entities delivering the service are both very experienced in the environment in the Indian Ocean Territories, and they have been for many years.
Mr Clay —The treatment is in fact secondary treatment, not tertiary. Although there is disinfection through ultraviolet on the way out, there is no filtration system installed in that. So it is secondary treatment only, and that is under our licensing system anyway. The licensing is comfortable with that. If you wanted to put in tertiary treatment, you would need to have a whole range of filtration arrangements and probably phosphorus removal at the same time. So it is not tertiary treatment. The other part is that the outfall is fairly close to the shore. It is actually quite close, as Mr Yates said. But that is because of the depth of the water very close by.
Senator FORSHAW —What is the situation for the people who actually live on the island? Is it the same?
Mr Yates —From the viewpoint of the residents, this upgrade will mean they continue to get the same level of service. In other words, they can flush their toilets, basically. It does not improve anything for them. From their perspective it maintains the status quo. I might add that the same applies to the power station. We still get electricity.
Mr FORREST —In the letter you wrote to us in December, the cost estimate for the generators was $22 million. It is now $30 million. What has been happening there?
Mr Yates —It is probably the way that we had worded the letter. The cost estimate of $22 million is for the additional generator capacity over and above what we were already intending to replace. Because the generating capacity on the island is comprised of a mixture of some new modern machines which work extremely well and some quite old—40-year-old—machines, we already had a program in place to replace the older machines. We had allocated $8 million within our capital works depreciation program to replace those. We are continuing with that part of it, and the additional $22 million is to obtain the additional generating capacity to cope with the increased demand driven by immigration. So we are actually continuing to use the funds that we appropriated to acquire the replacement generator capacity to deal with the community’s requirements. Timing is fortuitous in that we were able to make use of the same approach to the market that we had done for the community requirement and simply expand the number of units that we were acquiring. We did look at whether it was better to get a couple of bigger units. The difficulty there is that at some point we need to plan for the detention centre running down again, and it is more efficient to simply turn off a couple of smaller units and not use them than to have a big unit running at too low a capacity. That is to explain that issue. The total cost of the upgrade, including the community requirement, is $30 million, which includes $8 million of existing appropriation and the additional $22 million.
Mr LINDSAY —I have three questions in relation to the power supply. In the brief that you provided to us, under the need for the work you said that generators 1, 2 and 3 have reached the end of acceptable life because of poor design for the current application. Can you explain why it is a poor design for the current application.
Mr Yates —Essentially it is because it is a 40-year-old design and the technology for how efficiently you can run diesel generators has moved on significantly. A good example is that we have moved the power station to being a fully automated power station so that it does not require engine drivers sitting there personally monitoring the system. It is done by computers. You do not get the best response with a 40-year-old engine that was designed for manual operation compared to what you can get from a modern engine with much more sophisticated sensor sweeps to keep you informed about what the engine is doing, oil and fuel pressure, maintenance standards, keeping them in reserve for spinning load and those sorts of things. They are 40-year-old designs and they are at the end of their useful life. They are also difficult to get parts for. They were designed around a manual station operation.
Mr LINDSAY —The fact that they are 40 years old is really the prime driver for saying, ‘Let’s get a new set.’
Mr Yates —That is right. That is what was driving our original acquisition.
Mr LINDSAY —Just remind me, what is the location of our current power station?
Mr Yates —It is up on the plateau, close to the mine. There is a settlement area up on the plateau where you have Poon Saan and the high school. A little bit further along from the high school—300 or 400 metres—you have the power station.
Mr LINDSAY —Is the location of the power station ideal considering where the load is that the power station services?
Mr Yates —We believe so. The biggest load is in fact immediately across the road with the mine’s dryers. That is still one of the major and continuing users of the load.
Mr LINDSAY —So you are satisfied about the location?
Mr Yates —Very satisfied.
Mr LINDSAY —In this proposal you say that you are going to add another six megawatts of generation capacity. But I cannot find in here any detail about upgrading the HV distribution on the island. Are you doing that, and where is the cost of that incorporated?
Mr Yates —We are in the fortunate position that we have had a program through our existing funding to upgrade the HV system across the settlement part of the island. This involves putting overhead powerlines underground and replacing all the RMUs, which are the units that distribute the power around the block. That has been underway for some time. In fact, in the settlement area, it is largely complete. We have one or two existing overhead lines that still need replacement. For example, there is one that is being replaced with an underground line at the moment to Jedda Cave, which is one of the major water sources. That is being done under our existing appropriation as part of the routine asset management. We are using it to upgrade it. The construction of the detention centre also included a component to put an underground power cable out to it. Because of a problem with that cable in 2006, we replaced the cable with a new one. Our power manager has specifically assessed its ability to meet the additional demands and it has considerable excess capacity. I do not think we have that precise detail here, but we can certainly get it for you. It is certainly a question we have been asking—whether the system is adequate. All the advice I have received from my technical people is that, yes, the existing high-voltage system has plenty of capacity to cope with the additional demand.
Mr LINDSAY —I do not need any further information; you have answered very well. Thank you.
CHAIR —I have not been to Christmas Island, unlike some of my colleagues. Where do you get your fresh water from?
Mr Yates —The island is interesting. It is a karst landscape. That is the best way to describe it. It is limestone sitting on top of granite. There are no real streams on it. What happens is the rain lands—and it gets quite a bit of rain as it is in the tropics—and then percolates into the soil and into the limestone system. There are a complex series of underground streams. That is the best way of thinking of it. I do not think it is technically completely accurate but it is the easiest way to think of it. We have pump stations in various locations to extract water from them. Jedda is the main one. We also have places like Ross Hill Gardens and the Jane-up site, as it is called, where we extract water. We are bringing another site—Waterfall—online. Again, that is part of a normal water management process to increase capacity.
The island does not have rivers, streams or dams as there are in most places, but it has this fairly large amount of water stored in the aquifer that percolates down and hits the permeable layers and runs to sea. It is fair to say that not all of the aquifer is well understood. We understand the parts that we need for the human consumption aspects. I think the park would like to have a better understanding of how it works in large areas of the national park, but I cannot comment technically on what they are thinking on that.
CHAIR —So there is no requirement that you can foresee for increased capacity of freshwater production that would feed the process?
Mr Yates —The Water Corporation, again, keeps a good eye on this. They prepared a plan in 2002 that examined all the potential sources of water and they have done demand profiles that say, ‘As demand increases, we need to bring additional sources on board.’ We have been, in fact, following that plan. We have been able to do it within our existing funding. The current one that we are bringing online is the Waterfall source. That meets the trigger points in the demand profiles done by the Water Corporation. If there are further increases in population then we will need to start bringing online some of the additional sources, such as the Daniel Roux Cave system and the Smithson’s Bight system. We understand where the additional sources are. We understand when we need to bring them on based on population demand and, fortuitously, I guess—or you could say it was good planning; we would probably say it was good planning—we had already done the work to bring the Waterfall site online in advance of the government’s decision. That was being driven by our own planning that said, ‘It would be smart to bring this system online to give us a reserve contingency.’ If numbers increase again then, as I say, we would need to bring these other sources online.
CHAIR —Basically there are a number of sources you can link into.
Mr Yates —That is correct. They are as yet untapped. The water from most of those simply goes to sea at the moment if they are not used.
Mr PRICE —Is there any need for grey water recycling?
Mr Yates —That has been discussed. As I understand it, unless we were to build an entirely new greenfield site, it would not be practical to do it with the existing system. There is not a great shortage in the amount of water that is available on the island. A particular issue we have with the waste water is that there is more being produced in our current system than we can cope with. I should probably also acknowledge that the cooperation with Immigration to do all that can be done within their sites to reduce the amount of water coming into the system has also been very good. We have done a lot of work with them to manage the amount of water that is being put into the waste water system. But, as population increases, of course, no matter how efficient places are—with smaller shower heads and timers and moving commercial washing to better locations—you still get an increase in the amount of water coming into the system.
CHAIR —They have dual-flush toilets?
Mr Yates —I believe so, yes.
Mr LINDSAY —Gentlemen, about 10 years ago there was a proposal for a spaceport on Christmas Island. Has that continued to bubble along, or is it not in your planning at all in relation to services?
Mr Yates —It is no longer in the plan at all. The proponent some years ago was unable to meet any of the milestones. The funding support that had been available was withdrawn some years ago, and more recently the space centre ordinance, which provided the legal framework for someone to do something, if they were able to, has also been withdrawn because the proponent simply never progressed. It is no longer on the table.
Mr LINDSAY —Okay. Thank you.
Senator FORSHAW —You said earlier that you do not like to run the plant at full capacity. I understand the reasoning behind that. We never do that in these sorts of systems. But with all the extra capacity, what sort of percentage would you be running it at?
Mr Yates —Parts of the system are, as we speak, running at well over 100 per cent, which is not good. Water Corporation has additional staff and technical expertise on the island to keep the system running. It is a significant body of work for them and us. Pumps are under considerable pressure, so they have additional resources there to deal with failures—
Senator FORSHAW —When this work is completed, what sort of gap do you have? What is a normal sort of gap that you would allow for if you needed to suddenly increase capacity—within the existing system.
Mr Yates —A reasonable buffer, I would have said, is somewhere between one-third and 25 per cent of capacity. The current throughput is a little over 1,000 megalitres. The system that Water Corp is proposing goes to 1,700 megalitres, which includes a reasonable buffer to allow you to have parts of the system shut down for periods for routine maintenance.
Senator FORSHAW —That is the obvious reason why you would do it.
Mr Yates —So we are comfortable. Given the current numbers that are being discussed, the proposal at Smith Point does allow for that level of contingency.
Senator FORSHAW —Thank you.
CHAIR —I have just got some questions about why this is so urgent, basically.
Mr Yates —It depends how much detail—
Senator FORSHAW —Seventeen hundred people will answer that one!
CHAIR —My understanding is that Christmas Island was built in 2005-06 with a projected capacity of about 800.
Mr Yates —Yes.
CHAIR —There would have been an indication at that time that there would be surge capacity. Did Immigration talk to you about what potential impact that would have on your public infrastructure at that time? I am just trying to understand: why did we get a letter at Christmas time? Why weren’t you thinking about this somewhere between 2005-06 and last Christmas?
Mr Yates —I think the answer comes to matters probably best answered by Immigration. We were working on the parameters provided where the centre was built for 400 detainees at normal times and 800 with a surge. The systems were designed around meeting that parameter. The centre became operational in 2008 and remained empty for some considerable time—in fact, nearly a year. When I was on Christmas Island in February last year, a little over 12 months ago, there was no-one in the centre except the care and maintenance staff. The rationale behind the 400 and 800 is not something we are able to answer. That would be a matter for Immigration.
CHAIR —In your opening statement you said that in October the government indicated to you formally that there would be potential for somewhere between 1,700 and 1,800. So what happened between October and Christmas?
Mr Yates —Again that is probably a question that Immigration would have to respond to in terms of the process that led to the increase to 2,300 or 2,400 detainees on the island. This is an area where, providing the state-type services, if you like, we respond to the guidance given to us.
CHAIR —Sorry, I do not want to labour the point, but you were told in October that capacity could be somewhere between 1,700 and 1,800. You could have extrapolated from that that the waste water treatment plant at that point in October of last year was going to be stretched.
Mr Yates —We knew with those numbers that we needed to do something such as build a new site—the greenfield solution—or upgrade the existing treatment plant at Smith Point. So we proceeded on that basis. As time moved on—and I cannot recall the exact sequence of events—the increased capacity number started to settle on about 2,300 or 2,400. I think the reason there is some movement there is that a lot depends on whether the composition is around single men or families, because families use up more accommodation. So there is always a slight movement between the two. I suspect that possibly part of the reason for the differing figures is that Immigration was doing a staged approach to increase the capacity and the first step was to get it to around the 1,800 point and then probably move it to the 2,400 point. But that is a matter you would need to ask Immigration about.
CHAIR —From an Immigration point of view, they are the receivers of people who are escaping horrible circumstances, but I suppose I am looking at what the Attorney-General’s Department was doing between October and Christmas to go through the process of ensuring that the capacity for the services that were required were in order.
Mr Yates —There was daily consultation between us at the senior levels, including the deputy secretary and secretary level, on what would be done. Indeed, the Minister for Home Affairs announced the creation of the Indian Ocean Territories task force to look at the longer term strategic objectives. That is chaired by Mr Ian Govey, the deputy secretary from the Attorney-General’s Department, and it has Bob Correll from Immigration and Gerard Early from Environment. The task force is continuing its work at this moment to come up with some comprehensive advice to government on the long term for the IOTs. Of necessity that task force also was a very useful instrument for dealing with this immediate issue.
CHAIR —Thank you very much for coming to share this information with us. If we have further questions we can send—
Mr Yates —I am very happy to respond—
Ms HALL —Can you send that additional information on the tertiary treatment. I am sorry; you might have mentioned it when I was having my major sneezing attack!
Mr Clay —It is in fact a secondary treatment, not tertiary.
Ms HALL —How far out?
Mr Clay —It is close to the shoreline due to the depth of the water.
Ms HALL —How close?
Mr Clay —At the shoreline.
Ms HALL —At the shoreline?
Mr Clay —Yes.
CHAIR —Do people go swimming there?
Mr Yates —Not there, no.
CHAIR —Why not?
Mr Yates —Because it is rocky. It is not a swimming spot where it comes out off Smith Point. It is where we do the refuelling operations to enable other ships—
Mr Clay —It is a service area.
Mr Yates —It is a service part of the port.
Senator TROETH —It is a utilities area.
Mr Yates —Yes. It is well away from the swimming areas by some considerable distance.
Ms HALL —And there would be currents?
Mr Yates —Yes.
CHAIR —Thank you again.
Committee adjourned at 8.48 am