On-site domestic wastewater treatment is a matter that concerns just about everyone. From Weipa to Mount Wellington, from Byron Bay to Busselton, hundreds of thousands of Australians put their trust in the backyard septic tank and in add-on treatment systems to safely get rid of their household waste. 

That trust is about to be challenged by a non-descript but far-reaching regulation to drop in NSW, Victoria and most other states on January 1.

The regulation for on-site domestic secondary wastewater treatment (mainly, for treatment systems for backyard septic tanks) to take effect from that date is based on a faulty, procedurally flawed and possibly co-opted standard developed by Standards Australia. 

Known as AS1546.3:2017, this standard has troubled many of the country’s leading engineers and wastewater experts for a very simple reason: it ignores proven science. 

This standard has troubled many leading engineers and wastewater experts for a very simple reason: it ignores proven science.

But, how is this a public issue and not a marginal concern for boffins and industry types? We’re talking about crap after all. Why should anyone really care?

There are three core concerns which AS1546.3:2017 embodies. The first is that a faulty domestic, onsite wastewater regulation poses a public health risk. Having failure-prone, unsuitable and inappropriate systems in the nation’s backyards means that poorly treated or even untreated effluent may be dispersed widely, and come into contact with people, animals and surfaces. 

The second concern is that this standard embodies a dysfunctional system. Standards Australia has the sole responsibility for managing about 5000 standards for use around the country. That Standards Australia is a privately-owned and non-representative body which derives revenue from selling the very standards it creates should be cause enough for alarm. 

SA reported an operational surplus of more than $7 million and $21 million in net profits from its investments in its recent annual report. 

But, even more concerning, Standards Australia has shown itself, based on our dealings with them, to be unwilling to consider stakeholders in the development of standards.

The third issue is that the new standard will cost the consumer dearly. 

One report our group commissioned from a noted economics academic projects the cost generated by this standard for Australian consumers of $250 million annually across the national economy. This figure is based, among other calculations, on ridiculous scaling limitations that require a household of, say three to four people, to buy a treatment system for eight. 

National On-site Providers’ Association (NOPA) represents ‘passive’ wastewater treatment technology. Our members use techniques and products which, unlike the old aerated treatment systems, do not require chemicals, electricity or maintenance. 

Passive systems operate and disperse entirely underground (making them more disaster-proof), are scaleable, are cheaper to install and run – unit for unit- and generally generate a cleaner end product than older systems. 

These systems are used widely in the US, EU, UK and in Australia, where many thousands are already operating successfully. Our members are all small and medium enterprises. 

But, these systems are effectively regulated out in favour of the old-style, energy-hungry aerated systems where the industry is dominated by a few big operators. 

In the past 12 months, we and our members have commissioned reports either authored by, or peer-reviewed by, noted industry experts and academics. 

These reports all find fault with the new standard on different aspects. 

All note the standard’s distance from international practice, basic (and available) data and, frankly, commonsense. 

We have raised our concerns with Standards Australia and with state regulators to no effect. 

Each says it’s the other’s responsibility. 

Ironically, given the subject matter, we were even told by one Standards Australia executive in a formal meeting, “I don’t give a sh*t!”

They should.

We are aware of small businesses that will cease to operate from January 1; their industry has just been removed from the economy by Standards Australia. 

But, the wider concern is that, despite the data, despite the warnings, despite the absence of logic, Australia is entering a regulatory disaster which, given the context, can only be described as a sh*tstorm. 

Ian Christesen is a director of the National On-site Providers’ Association. He has advised the private sector and governments in Australia and overseas on waste management.

(This article was originally published in The Newcastle Herald, December 16, 2020. Link here)