HUNTER Water copped a lashing in the NSW Land and Environment Court this month from Justice Tim Moore. He fined the state-owned water authority $187,500 and ordered it to pay the NSW Environment Protection Authority’s legal costs of $75,000.
At the bottom of his lengthy judgment, published on Tuesday, Justice Moore issued a final direction – that Hunter Water was to take out advertisements in the Newcastle Herald, the Maitland Mercury and the Dungog Chronicle, to say it had been convicted of water pollution and breaching its licence at Dungog in 2014.
The EPA wanted Hunter Water to “publicise the nature of the offending conduct and the penalties that have been imposed as a consequence of it”, Justice Moore said.
It was “the corporate equivalent to the medieval practice of putting an offender in the stocks in the community marketplace”, he said.
Hunter Water has been named and shamed for a series of failures from late 2012 until heavily fluoridated water sprayed in a fan at Dungog water treatment plant on August 12, 2014, pointing staff to the source of gradually increasing background fluoride levels detected in data for four months.
The water authority knew there were risks associated with failing to upgrade the fluoridation part of the plant. It knew there were risks with failing to improve its monitoring regime and it failed to act.
For that it was punished.
But the water authority knows it got off relatively lightly, even with the large fine and the public shaming. An unknown quantity of fluoride leaked from the Dungog plant, and eventually into Slaughteryard Creek, over an unknown period. What is known is that in just two weeks until the final spray, 750 litres of concentrated fluoride leaked from the plant.
It is, as Justice Moore noted, “highly toxic and corrosive” in concentrated form, and “highly harmful” to humans. The court heard the leak into the creek, and a subsequent “foolish” flushing with chlorinated water, would have killed aquatic invertebrates. But the actual environmental damage was likely to have been limited.
Hunter Water has upgraded plants across its system, and the penalties and public shaming send a message to other corporations and institutions. In Justice Moore’s words, environmental crimes “are not to be tolerated”.