AN internal Environment Protection Authority review of a sewage leak on a Gippsland farm has recommended changes to EPA procedures after identifying flaws in the way the assessment of the spill was handled.
But it is unknown whether the review will have any impact on the fight by Flynn farmer Patrick Ferguson to receive “fair” compensation for the 2016 spill, which leaked thousands of litres of sewage onto his dairy farm.
In February last year, the first of three sewer system breakdowns on the Rosedale-Traralgon sewer main — managed by Gippsland Water (trading as Central Gippsland Regional Water Corporation) — occurred at the Flynn property, contaminating stock and water sources.
After the first spill, the Environment Protection Authority, Agriculture Victoria and Gippsland Water were notified, and the farm’s 30 troughs and the dam were pumped, but a second spill six months later, and a third in October, virtually disabled the working dairy.
About 800 cows were quarantined on the farm for two years, and the Department of Primary Industries advised the Fergusons that part of the farm would be quarantined for 18 months.
Young farmer Patrick Ferguson estimates his losses for the first spill at $80,000, and has rejected an offer of $15,000 as “unacceptable”.
He has accused Gippsland Water of hiding behind its insurer.
He and his father have vowed to continue their fight with Gippsland Water’s insurers, and have stepped up their campaign for justice by taking the issue to the Victorian Parliament, and to the ombudsman, as well as documenting it on social media.
The Fergusons met with the water authority in state parliament two weeks ago, facilitated by Eastern Victorian MLC Harriet Shing, but called the trip to Melbourne “a waste of time”.
“We suggested that Gippsland Water pay the interim claim and that it includes a rise or fall clause so that any disputed amounts can be adjusted at the time of the final settlement,” Bernie said.
“We explained that this would provide much needed cash flow for our son (Patrick), who has not only had to wear the devastating milk price collapse of May 2016, but also has had to carry Gippsland Water’s bill for the last 17 months.
“This suggestion was ignored.”
Bernie said Central Gippsland Regional Water Corporation had now suggested mediation to settle the full claim sometime post August, but he said that with no move on the initial compensation offer, mediation was “as likely as flying pigs”.
In releasing the EPA review, the authority’s executive director of regulatory services, Damian Wells, said while it found the EPA and Central Gippsland Regional Water Corporation “broadly met expectations” in response to the incident, Gippsland Water was too slow to report the spill to the EPA, and insufficient information was gathered by the EPA at the time.
It found that “further information could have been sought by the EPA officer from Gippsland Water which may have influenced a different response to the incident, a possible visit to the site and gathering evidence to support an infringement notice”.
“Through this review and the recommendations, EPA is sending a strong message to all water corporations in relation to their management of the sewerage system,” the report states.
In a media release on the report, Mr Wells said the EPA was “deeply concerned” by the information it received about the significant effect the spill had on the farmer.
“The review has helped to identify areas of improvement within EPA and in responding to sewer spills and will ensure the recommendations outlined in the report are put in place,” Mr Wells said.
Patrick Ferguson’s interim claim for $81,000 for costs incurred until August 2016 has been fully quantified by an independent farm consultant.
At the end of a tough financial year and low milk prices, the sewage leaks have been devastating and caused considerable emotional and financial stress for both families.
This quarantine restriction greatly reduced the market for the animals and ended export opportunities, and many milking cows had to be slaughtered at reduced prices and in a limited market.
In June, when the Gippsland Times reported the story, Gippsland Water managing director Sarah Cumming said the authority remained “committed towards ensuring Mr Ferguson is fairly compensated and has expressed this position to its insurer”.
However, this claim and others made by the authority that it was working with the Fergusons to settle the issue, have been disputed by the families.
Offering some small reprieve for the Fergusons is the completion of the farm’s quarantine period next month.