East Gippsland Water (EGW) has been placed on a two-year good behaviour bond and will pay more than $70,000 for illegally discharging treated wastewater.

EGW faced Bairnsdale Magistrates Court on Wednesday, November 1, pleading guilty to one charge of discharging treated wastewater outside its EPA licence conditions.

The water service providers released about 138 megalitres of wastewater from the Paynesville Water Recycling Plant at Forge Creek in August and September 2021, resulting in increased risks of harm to the environment and human health.

EGW has been placed on a two-year good behaviour bond and will pay more than $70,000, including a $20,000 refundable bond, $50,000 to community-based projects facilitated by East Gippsland Catchment Management Authority in consultation with the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation, and $4,651 in court costs to EPA Victoria.

EGW commenced discharging water from the Paynesville Water Recycling Plant into a channel running into Forge Creek on August 18, 2021, citing unexpectedly high rainfall as the reason for its actions.

EPA Victoria did not grant EGW’s application for an emergency discharge, with EPA Gippsland Regional Manager Jessica Bandiera saying EGW should have foreseen such an event and been prepared.

“While there were extremes in the weather, EGRWC should have been better prepared and managed its water treatment capacity and storage to avoid the need for any discharge,” Ms Bandiera said.

“We’re pleased also that the magistrate agreed with us that EGRWC should contribute financially to a project that will address some of the environmental issues the affected area is confronting.

“EPA is working to ensure all wastewater treatment plants have updated risk management and monitoring plans in place, and this result sends a very clear message to all water companies that they must invest in improving their performance.”

Despite the rejected application for an emergency discharge, EGW continued the discharge of treated wastewater, arguing it undertook the action on the belief that an emergency prevailed and the release was necessary to avoid over-topping its storage dams and compromising the structural integrity of the dam walls.

EGW believe failure to act would have been negligent, as overtopping of the storage dams would pose an unacceptable risk to the health and safety of the community and its workers and risked spilling of untreated wastewater into the environment.

East Gippsland Water Managing Director Steve McKenzie said the exceptional rainfall, part of the wettest period on record, placed significant pressure on several of EGW’s water recycling facilities.

“This was caused by the combined impact of the extreme wet conditions making it impossible to irrigate, the increased stormwater inflows and increased population load in Paynesville, due to the impact of COVID lockdowns and population shift out of Melbourne, where the volume of recycled water held in storage exceeded what could be safely stored,” he said.

Since discharging treated wastewater outside its EPA licence conditions in 2021, EGW has invested millions into the Paynesville Water Recycling Plant to avoid future wet weather water releases.

“During the two years since this occurred, EGW has undertaken $5 million of improvement actions at Paynesville to avoid future wet weather water releases by expanding the irrigation area at Paynesville, purchasing of additional property on Lake Victoria Road and changing the lease requirements on our farms to allow for more irrigation,” Mr McKenzie said.

“At all times, we have been transparent with both the EPA and our communities on why these controlled releases needed to occur.

“Many of our staff worked hard to deal with the consequences of the extreme wet weather at several of our water recycling facilities during 2021/2022, which was outside of their control and affected their health and wellbeing, and we will continue to support them, especially during this time.”