Colleen Hughson says she’s found enough fat on the beach to fill a two-litre bucket. (ABC South West Victoria: Daniel Miles)
Residents are claiming victory over a water authority they say is pumping “fatballs” and plastics into the ocean at Warrnambool in south-west Victoria.
- Beachcombers have found large amounts of cotton buds, microplastics, and balls of fat on the beach, which is near a Wannon Water treatment plant outlet
- EPA Victoria has announced new restrictions, preventing Wannon Water from discharging wastewater containing “visible floating foam, oils, grease or litter”
- Wannon Water denied pumping ‘fatballs’ and plastic into the sea, saying it was already meeting those requirements
For two-and-a-half years, a community group has been demanding action over the amount of pollution washing up at an area known as Shelly Beach.
Beachcombers have been finding large amounts of plastic cotton buds, microplastics known as nurdles, and balls of fat and grease on the beach, which is near an outlet from Wannon Water’s sewage treatment plant.
The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) Victoria today announced new restrictions on Wannon Water, preventing it from discharging wastewater that contains “visible floating foam, oils, grease or litter”.
Wannon Water said it was already meeting those requirements and denied pumping fatballs and plastic into the sea.
But Warrnambool resident Colleen Hughson, who has been spearheading a local clean-up campaign since 2017, said the EPA announcement was the victory her group had been waiting for.
“It’s fantastic,” Ms Hughson said.
“We made a lot of reports over the last couple of years to both the EPA and Wannon Water and just felt like nothing was changing on the beaches.
“The pollution was still coming out. Just last week, we collected over 700 cotton buds off the beach … we get about a 1,000 a month.
Volunteers like Colleen Hughson are calling on companies to replace plastic-stemmed cotton buds with biodegradable paper options. (ABC South West Victoria: Daniel Miles)
“We have made reports to the EPA but nothing’s been able to be done about it because there’s actually been nothing in [Wannon Water’s] licence to say they can’t discharge plastics and other pollutants into the ocean. We’ve been coming up against that for the last two-and-a-half years.
“Now, when there is a pollution incident and we do report it, something will be acted on.
“I’m really, really pleased that this has happened. It feels like we’re finally getting somewhere.”
Issues around pollution escaping from Wannon Water’s sewage treatment plant came to light in November 2017, when millions of plastic beads — nurdles — began washing up on south-west Victorian beaches.
This brought attention to other issues raised by Ms Hughson and her fellow “beach cleaners”, which included the vast quantities of plastic-stemmed cotton buds and fatballs also ending up on the shore.
“Our aim right from the beginning was to get plastic-stemmed cotton buds banned in Australia,” Ms Hughson said.
“That’s probably going to be a very long campaign for us, but this is definitely a victory.”
Plastic-stemmed cotton buds will be banned in England from April next year and the European Union by 2021, and are already banned in Scotland and New Zealand.
The EPA’s south-west regional manager, Carolyn Francis, said the additional licence conditions were imposed, “following incidents where plastic litter and pieces of fat were found along Shelly Beach”.
“While Wannon Water has taken practical steps to improve the plant’s environmental performance, the changes EPA has made to the licence have tightened the requirements and set clearer limits to what is permissible,” Ms Francis said.
The changes prohibit the discharge of visible pollutants, but also set maximum limits for wastewater quality indicators.
“Those maximum limits mean a long run of good days can’t balance out a short burst of very bad ones,” Ms Francis said.
Wannon Water’s managing director, Andrew Jeffers, said the changes to the licence would have no practical impact because the water authority was already meeting those requirements.
Wannon Water managing director Andrew Jeffers acknowledged past problems with plastic spills, but said they would not happen again. (Supplied: Wannon Water)
“The reality is that Wannon Water has already got the investments in place to meet these licence parameters,” Mr Jeffers said.
“We’ve installed final effluent screens back in 2017 and are making further amendments to have them as fully automatic screens [by] mid-2020.”
He said Wannon Water was spending $1.1 million to improve the screens, on top of a $40 million upgrade to increase capacity.
Mr Jeffers acknowledged past problems with plastic spills, but said they would not happen again.
“In 2017, there was a spill of nurdles into our treatment plant illegally that went through the plant and into the ocean,” he said.
Nurdles, lentil-sized plastic pellets, litter beaches all around Australia, particularly south-west Victoria. (ABC RN: Fiona Pepper)
“We weren’t happy with that and we’ve undertaken investments to prevent that happening into the future.”
Mr Jeffers said he was “very confident” there were not 1,000 plastic-stemmed cotton buds coming from Wannon Water, saying, “We capture one to two a day on that final effluent screen”.
“Plastics … can get into the environment through many different pathways. They could be historic ones that are within the soil profile. They could be coming from the currents from other locations.
“I’m not saying either of those explanations is right, but I can assure [people] … the final effluent screens that are in place at the plant now aren’t allowing any significant quantities of cotton bud sticks through the plant.”