23 June 2008

Estimates Committee B (O'Byrne) - Part 2

1.2 Analytical services
Monitoring for Bacteria – Tamar River
Mr FINCH - Analytical services in respect of the Tamar River - 
CHAIR - I would hate you to move out of the Tamar.

Ms O'BYRNE - I think with the make-up of this committee it is unlikely.

Mr FINCH - We talked about the E. coli.  Does the environment department do any measurements?  I think we have heard that there were some measurements taken on some outpours into the Tamar River -

Ms O'BYRNE - Access points, perhaps.

Mr FINCH - Are those measurements and the monitoring of E. coli measurements in the Tamar River left entirely up to the council?

Ms O'BYRNE - I may have to get the director to answer this, bearing in mind one again that the Director of Health has a role in this negotiation as well.

Mr JONES - We, as an agency, require monitoring of the level two activities that we regulate, so we require the council - and indeed if there were anyone else operating a sewerage treatment plant we would require them - to monitor for E. coli as an input into the river.  In terms of the ambient monitoring that is carried out in the river itself, I understand that is undertaken by Launceston City Council.  The Director of Public Health has some guidelines for carrying out monitoring for bacteria in areas that are used for primary contact and recreation.  My understanding is that the part of the river where these E. coli levels were found were not part of his particular requirement but something that the council was doing of its own volition.

Mr FINCH - Are practices going to change?  What is the fallout of this circumstance that you had with the E. coli levels so high and needing to be flushed out by the Hydro?  Will practices change to enable that to be monitored more carefully so that it does not happen again?

Mr JONES - We have certainly been looking into the TIAR report, basically, and then the TIAR program to operate in a way that perhaps reflects what happens with the Derwent Estuary program where there is a co-operative, co-ordinated monitoring program, so I think that would fall out hopefully of the TIAR report and the TIAR program in general.  That is certainly our intention.

Mr FINCH - The TIAR report cannot come soon enough.

Ms O'BYRNE - It is not too far away.  I was hoping it would be done by now, which might have changed our conversations a little.

Mr FINCH - Who paid for the Hydro to flush the E. coli out of  the Tamar River?

Ms O'BYRNE - We can take that on notice; I am not sure.

Mr FINCH - I am just wondering if that is an ongoing practice that might need to be done; who actually picked up the bill?

Ms O'BYRNE - I could not tell you off the top of my head; I will find out.  We suspect it was probably Hydro.

Mr FINCH - As explained in page 4.5, note 2, the increase in deliverable services output for the coming financial year reflects high estimated operating costs supported by external fee recoveries.  Now it is understandable that operating costs are always rising, but what proportion of the cost is recovered in external fees?  Do we know that?

Mr JONES - Yes, I know approximately; I am not sure whether the figures will tell us that accurately.  It is a bit over 50 per cent of revenue that Analytical Services recovers through external fees.

Mr FINCH - But who pays external fees?  Who do that charge go to?

Mr JONES - There is a whole raft of clients.  AST effectively acts as a commercial laboratory in the same way as commercial clients buy their services, if you like; we as a government also buy services from them but the external fees come from a whole raft of different clients - companies, fish farms, mines, councils.  Some councils use AST, some use mainland laboratories.  It is just a commercial transaction.

Ms O'BYRNE - Can I give a little bit of further information?  The Consolidated Fund contributes $1.153 million and the fees are $1.7 million.

Mr FINCH - Are they fairly constant?  Can those fees be counted upon to be at about that same level?

Mr JONES - Again, we operate in a commercial environment, so while the laboratory has maintained a trend of increasing external revenue for a number of years they are in, as I said, a competitive environment so we cannot guarantee that it will always be the case in the future.  They will have to remain competitive.

Mr FINCH - Where is the laboratory based?  Do you have operations throughout the State or just in the one location?

[2.45 p.m.]
Mr JONES - The laboratory is based at New Town.  It is co-located with Forensic Sciences, if you know where that is.  It is in the St Johns complex at New Town.

Mr FINCH - Thanks very much.  On table 4.3, changing the subject now, there is a massive increase in 2010-11 for the Mount Lyell treatment plant.  But I have not heard a great deal about that.

Ms O'BYRNE - It is a significant project.

Mr FINCH - But what I am curious about is, will that fix the problem in the King River once and for all?  The big question.

Ms O'BYRNE - If there was only one problem in the King River.  You would be aware that obviously the Clean Up the King River Project is part of a strategic national heritage program where the objective is to improve the ecological health of the lower King in Macquarie Harbour.  It is a culmination of six years of investigation development works which were completed in 2002 and identified that there were no cost-neutral options for treatment.  Options investigated at that time to treat the acid drainage ranged in cost form $10 million to $16 million in capital costs and from $1.6 million to $10 million in annual operating costs.  Recognising that the full treatment was unlikely to proceed due to the high cost, a staged approach to the problem is being developed.  Firstly, involving copper cementation, then investigation of other technologies to further recover metals as value-added products.  We received $8.5 million from the Commonwealth and the Tasmanian Government to the stage 1 of the project which is now proceeding and water management works to divert clean water from the acid-producing waste drop dump and mine workings has now been completed at a cost of $1.2 million.

The cost estimates for a plant for the removal of copper from the acid mine drainage have recently been completed and it is anticipated that expressions of interest for the design, construction and commissioning of a plant will be sought in approximately 12 months time and commissioning of copper removal plant is anticipated to occur around 2010-11 and this is being project managed by a steering group.

The slightly different position we are in now - and I have to be awfully careful because there is a lot of work going on - is that there is a market for copper now and there was not before.  So that does change the engagement that we now have from other sources.

Mr JONES - Yes, and there has also been some significant advances in technology with the firm that we have been working with over this.  So that now holds out what we regard as a very promising option for removing the vast majority of the copper and the zinc in a cost-effective manner. 

Getting back to your original question, at this stage our best estimate is that the majority of that money that we currently have - in an interest-bearing account, I might add - will be drawn down in 2010-11.  Obviously there is a way to go yet before that comes to reality, but that is our best estimate at this stage as to when that money would drawn on to fund the construction of a plant.  That will solve many problems of the King River and Macquarie Harbour.  That river has a silt problem as well and putting the plant in there will not reduce the delta in Macquarie Harbour and solve some of the aluminium problems that would still be in the waste, but it will go an awfully long way to solving what we know of the King River problem.

Ms O'BYRNE - There is a view that we are in a much better position to resolve it than we were.

Mr FINCH - There were just a couple of questions -

CHAIR - Thank you.  I think you might have gone backwards there, Minister, just a tad, back into environment.

Mr FINCH - Yes, we are hovering around there but it is about the analytical services that give us the results of what is going on.  I am wondering about measurements for turbidity.  I am thinking again about our issue with the Tamar River.  Do Analytical Services constantly monitor our rivers and streams in Tasmania on a basis that there are measurements that are taken constantly throughout our State?

Mr JONES - No. Analytical Services Tasmania is effectively a chemistry laboratory that provides analytical services.  It has no function in terms of ongoing monitoring.  That is probably a question you would best direct to the Department of Primary Industries and Water that effectively run the river monitoring system for Tasmania.

Mr FINCH - It is difficult to get ahead with all the change of departments - DPIWE, Environment, Arts, we have got such a mix-up of things at the moment so it is quite confusing.

Ms O'BYRNE - One thing in terms of measuring water quality, though, and this is an opportunity to sing the praises of the local group in the north-east, is that when we produced the State of the Rivers report recently, the data that they collected is, we think, the only data collected by volunteers in the country that is considered to be of such a standard that it would be included in national reporting figures.  DPIW has done a lot of work with that particular environmental group and that has provided us with a new opportunity to get better river health data.