Sewage contamination of a river. File photo.
Sewage contamination of a river. File photo. Lachie Millard

Council was warned after raw sewage pollution of river

SEWAGE overflow in the Evans River last year has sullied an annual report on water safety for swimmers in the region.

The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage released its annual State of the Beaches report earlier this month and the Evans River, beginning near Woodburn and ending in the Coral Sea at Evans Head south of Ballina, was rated as "poor" for the second year in a row.

Poor swimming sites were "susceptible to faecal pollution and microbial water quality [was] not always suitable for swimming", stated the 2015-2016 report.

"During June 2015, a sewage overflow discharged to the Evans River, upstream of the sampling site," it continued.

"Council staff patrolled the area to prevent public exposure to the raw sewage and tidal exchange dissipated the overflow."

The report also stated that Richmond Valley Council had "commenced a program of genetic testing to help identify potential sources of elevated microbial results impacting the river system" and had undertaken extra sampling throughout the year. Previously the river was tested weekly.

In June last year the council's general manager, John Walker, said Council would appeal an $8,000 fine issued by the NSW Environment Protection Authority for taking too long to report 12.7 kilolitres of raw sewage from the Evans Head sewage plant that had polluted Evans River in March.

At the time, the EPA referred to "a similar incident in March 2014 in which Council failed to immediately notify the EPA of a system failure at the Evans Head Waste Water Treatment Plant, resulting in an Official Caution being issued by the EPA".

The council also received a warning from the EPA over its management of sewage in 2012 when it emerged that the council had allowed coal-seam gas company Metgasco to dump more than 1.3 million litres of waste water at a sewage plant in Casino.

The NSWOEH report stated the council conducted random audits of "nearly 3000 licensed on-site sewage management systems" in the Richmond Valley, down from 3430 in 2014-2015.

Evans River "had mostly good water quality during dry weather conditions, but swimming should be avoided during and following rainfall or when there are signs of stormwater pollution such as discoloured water or floating debris" stated the report.

"Rainfall is the major driver of pollution to recreational waters, generating stormwater runoff and triggering discharges from the wastewater treatment and transport systems," it explained.

Health risks from swimming in polluted conditions included "gastroenteritis, with symptoms including vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach ache, nausea, headache and fever".

"Eye, ear, skin and upper respiratory tract infections can also be contracted [through] contact with small breaks and tears in the skin or ruptures of the delicate membranes in the ear or nose," the report said.

"Certain groups of users may be more vulnerable to the threat of microbial infection than others.

"Children, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, tourists, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are generally most at risk."

The council's current general manager, Vaughan McDonald, has been contacted for comment.

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