Sewage pumping stations (SPS) form a major element of sewerage services and are required to lift sewage from a lower to higher level to assist normal gravity-flow towards the sewage treatment plant. In some Queensland communities, sewerage networks rely solely on gravity but this is rare and most towns need pumping stations particularly if they are hilly. Consequently there are more than 3,500 sewage pumping stations of differing size (capacity) across the state.
Pumping stations are usually located at low points of the landscape and are often designed as a ‘safety valve’ for emergency release of sewage (e.g. during floods) to avoid overflows occurring on private property and inside houses. Overflows will occur in wet weather when sewage volumes are increased beyond the capacity of the network, or because of illegal connections to the sewer and through infiltration of pipes by stormwater. Building sewerage systems large enough to contain the entire potential wet weather flow is prohibitively expensive, particularly in sub-tropical and tropical Queensland, so overflows are a necessary feature of some pumping stations after heavy rain.
SPS that act as a safe overflow point require careful design and management because of the potential risks to human health and the environment from sewage spills. Service Providers seek to reduce or eliminate overflows and, when they do occur, to manage the event to reduce risks to public health and waterways. For example, signs warning people not to swim or play in waterways that may be affected by sewage are common near overflow points. However, recreation in urban waterways after heavy rains is risky even where there is no chance of sewage overflows as urban stormwater contains germs and chemicals from the catchment.
Regulation to avoid environmental impacts from overflows at pumping stations was put in place in 2009 with little industry consultation. The water and sewerage sector has been working with the Environmental Regulator (currently the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection) since then to design fit-for-purpose rules to mitigate risks from overflows and avoid environmental harm. Significant changes have been made to the rules over the past few years (see Time Line below), and the sector has been transitioning from a set of rigid and sometimes unachievable conditions to a more outcomes-focussed approach.
In 2013, the Regulator suggested that the sector transition from the current regulatory arrangements to an Industry Code of Practice and a qldwater expert panel worked with the Department over the next two years to develop this process with broad industry and Regulator input. Following this significant negotiation and development period, a draft Code of Practice was finalised and provided for decision by the Government in late 2015. No response on this decision has yet been received.
Under the Queensland Environmental Protection Act 1994, an Industry Code of Practice (Code) is a guideline created by the industry itself, describing optimal operations, maintenance and planning in different situations. Following a Code can be used as a defence against a charge of causing environmental nuisance or harm or other offences like releasing contaminants to waters. The Code currently being developed is expected to reflect the outcomes targeted under the previously renegotiated Standard Conditions, but it can be more flexible than a rigid list of requirements, allowing for risk-based management relevant to conditions of each system.
Adhering to the Code would be voluntary, but operators who had an overflow and did not comply would need other evidence to prove that they had complied with the General Environmental Duty to avoid enforcement action. The Department has an information sheet and suggested template for Codes of Practice.
There are serious considerations for each service provider in transitioning from the current regulations to a Code. For example, a Code applies to all pump stations and the entire sewage network regardless of size and age (whereas current regulations apply only to large pump stations installed after 2009). It also puts the onus on the industry to maintain best practice standards but removes the direct legislative requirement/penalty and also certainty of protection when service providers adhere to mandatory Standard Conditions. Under the proposed transition to a Code, the current ERA for pumping stations over 40 kl/hr would be deleted, and those pumping stations would no longer need an environmental authority using Standard Conditions. This would allow industry members to determine the best way to meet the desired outcomes specified in the Code of Practice but means that the only protection from prosecution is under the General Environmental Duty.
The Code must be created and maintained by the industry in negotiation with the Regulator but would then be in place for seven years before needing to be reviewed. The potential risks and benefits associated with moving to an Industry Code of Practice were detailed in a qldwater Position Paper sent to all members in March 2014.
Pump stations were designated as an Environmentally Relevant Activity with little industry consultation and impractical standards.
2011 - The Regulator worked with the sector and reformulated their Guidelines.
2012 - The Regulator converted the guidelines a 'Code of Environmental Compliance' in close consultation with the sector, resulting in a more practical regulatory framework.
2013 - ‘Greentape-reduction’ saw the recently released Code of Environmental Compliance converted to ‘Standard Conditions’ which enshrined the remaining unachievable conditions, resulting in further negotiations.
2013- The Regulator suggested that the sector transition from Standard Conditions to an Industry Code of Practice.
2014 - Industry consultation including a Position Paper was circulated to all sewerage service providers resulting in strong support for the transition to a Code.
2014 - A draft Code was developed through an iterative process involving the Expert Panel, the Regulator and the broader industry (see Developing the Code below).
2015 - A final Draft Code was completed early in the year incorporating feedback from the industry and the Department of Environment and Heritage.
2015 - Further negotiations with the Regulator during 2015 resulted in an updated Final Draft Code submitted in November for a decision by the Queensland Government.
2016 - Meetings with the Minister for Environment and the Director General of DEHP indicated in-principle support for the transition to an Industry Code of Practice.
Pump stations were designated as an Environmentally Relevant Activity (ERA) in 2009 under the Environmental Protection Regulations 2008 to mitigate potential environmental impacts of sewage overflows at pump stations. The ERA applied to stations with a ‘design capacity’ exceeding 40 kL per hour (11 L/s) unless the pump is an integral part of a sewage treatment plant (i.e. used to maintain flows on the site of the STP). The threshold was an arbitrary figure chosen by the Regulator to define stations that deal with a ‘significant’ amount of sewage. However, there is little correlation between size and either (a) the likelihood of overflow, (b) the volume discharged or (c) the potential for environmental harm. An estimated 1900 pump stations in Queensland exceed the 40kL/hr threshold.
After the release of initial Statutory Guidelines for the ERA by the Regulator in 2009 the industry sought further advice and support on meeting the new requirements. This resulted in qldwater releasing an industry-developed template and guideline and an incident response manual for managing sewer overflows in early 2010 following the release of the Wet and Dry Well Maintenance Manual in late 2009. Continuing industry advocacy led to the Regulator reformulating their Guidelines in 2011 and then in late 2012 converting the document to a self-assessable Code of Environmental Compliance. These changes, which were undertaken in close consultation with the industry, resulted in a more practical regulatory framework with only a only a small number of unachievable conditions.
In 2013, ‘greentape-reduction’ saw the recently released Code of Environmental Compliance converted to ‘Standard Conditions.’ This had no effect on the actual conditions applying to pump stations, but altered the way in which compliance could be achieved. This resulted in a new wave of negotiation between the regulator and the industry to clarify issues arising from the change and led to agreement early in 2014 to several amendments to the Standard Conditions. This included a variation to Condition 10 which had created the impossible requirement that there should never be overflows at pump station. This aim would be impossible in many areas and would result in any excess flows spilling within low-lying private residences (see FAQs below for the Department's response on Condition 10). However, before these changes could be made, the regulator came back to the industry with an alternative proposal, namely to remove the legislative requirement (ERA) and replace it with an Industry Code of Practice.
On the suggestion of the Regulator to transition to an Industry Code of practice, members of the qldwater expert panel were asked to provide a formal response from their organisations and all were in favour of the change subject to broader agreement from the industry. e-Flash # 222 was distributed on 28 February 2014 describing the proposal by the regulator and a draft industry Position Paper was mailed to all local governments that provide sewerage services requesting feedback. This communication process was continued until June 2014 with numerous reminders to build a broad industry response. A majority of the sector responded and all supported the transition to a Code of Practice that was fit-for-purpose for different sized providers and maintained proper protection for all industry members. Responses were provided by the following Service Providers:
Informal responses were provided by several more councils. There were no objections to the Code of Practice in any of the formal (or informal) feedback, although six councils commented on the risks of removing protection provided by the existing ERA 63 regulation and the need to have a fit-for-purpose and outcomes-driven approach relevant to all sizes of service provider.
In the second half of 2014, qldwater commenced a process to develop the Code and invited broad industry involvement. This included:
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