The Guardian 30 November, 2005

NSW Government sinking in the salt

The NSW Government continues to dig its own grave. This time it is with its blind pursuit of a desalination plant at Kurnell, in Botany Bay, Sydney. The proposal involves an ultra-expensive and environmentally unsound method of extracting salt from seawater.

The Government recently suffered major embarrassment over disclosures that under private control the desalination plant would operate continuously, even during flood periods. This followed shocking revelations of massive profit guarantees for the privately funded and run Cross-City Tunnel.

As a result the Government now proposes to use its own funds to finance the construction of the plant, but still hand over the building, running and maintenance of the plant to the for-profit private sector. The only difference would be that the public sector "owns" the plant and would pay for its construction.

This arrangement, the Govern­ment claims, would make it possible for the plant to cease operation during times of plentiful rainfall. Mind you, that seems a little problematic, desalination plants usually require near-continuous operation in order to avoid filter deterioration and pollution of output areas.

Unacceptable environmental outcomes

The desalination plant will consume huge amounts of energy. A Sydney Water report says that offsetting just half the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a 500 megalitre plant would require a forest more than twice as big as Sydney’s Royal National Park! The Government is not interested. An initial "sweetener" suggestion from the Government for the plant to be solar-powered was quickly and quietly dropped.

Moreover, last week the Govern­ment reluctantly admitted that salt discharged from the plant would damage delicate sea grasses, which are critical to marine fauna and vegetation, at the mouth of Botany Bay — near the collection point!

"History is bunk!" said Henry Ford. The Iemma Government seems to agree. The massively intrusive plant would be lumped near one of our most historic places, Captain Cook’s landing site.

Financially indefensible

The proposal is financially indefensible. The Government-favoured plant, capable of meeting nine percent of Sydney’s needs (125 million litres per day) would cost $1.3 billion to construct. One capable of producing 500 million litres per day would cost $2 billion ($2.6 million according to water expert, Charles Essery).

The clearly more practical approach would be to collect Sydney’s stormwater and recycle its waste water. A Sydney Water report estimates that the desalination plant would cost almost twice as much as a system for recycling a similar amount of waste water, and would consume three times as much energy.

Jeff Angel, head of Sydney’s Total Environment Centre, has stated that simply treating waste water from Sydney’s western suburbs alone would yield 96 million litres per day.

Head in the sand

The Government also proposes to pump water to Warragamba Dam from Nowra and elsewhere. Given the distance, the cost would presumably be huge. The proposal could also jeopardise the supply in these areas.

The Nature Conservation Council of NSW has calculated that for $1.5 billion, the Government could subsidise installation of 5,000-litre water tanks in 1.5 million Sydney households. This would supply twice as much water as the plant, eliminating water shortages for up to 80 years.

The Government stubbornly rejects these "bleeding obvious" options, foolishly repeating the absurdity that they are not going to "make the public drink sewerage". Three percent of Sydney’s water is already recycled! London has been treating its waste water for years, and 20 percent of Adelaide’s supply is recycled.

So why is the Government sticking so doggedly to this illogical proposal? Because it would give the major corporations with whom the Government enjoys a particularly close association yet another profit-gouging opportunity?

The alternative approach of recycling waste water would merely involve upgrading the existing publicly-­owned reticulation and treatment systems, a far less attractive proposition for making profits.

This is especially true of the invidious "Private/Public Partnerships" involved in contracts for building, operating and maintaining public utilities. Alan Wood, economics editor for Sydney Morning Herald, commented recently: "Too often [PPPs] have proved to be vehicles for providing investment banks with rich monopoly profits, with the cost of any failures borne by taxpayers."

The Government’s determination to persist with the desalination plant demonstrates that it has learnt nothing from the Airport Rail Link, which (it was said), would be built at "no cost to the taxpayer", but ended up costing taxpayers $800 million. Nor did it learn from the fiasco of the Cross-City Tunnel, built with government guarantees of huge profits, at taxpayers’ expense, for the operators.

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