Public health expert removed from water quality authority

THE agency set up in response to the city’s worst drinking water crisis, the Sydney Catchment Authority, has been left without a public health expert on its board for the first time in its history, prompting concerns about the oversight of its operations.

The decision, part of a complete overhaul of the authority board, has been defended by the state government, despite its own legislation stipulating the need for the board to have public health credentials.

The catchment authority was established following the 1998 crisis during which Sydneysiders were forced to boil their drinking water after it was found to be infected by the pathogens crytosporidium and giardia.

Since its inception, its board has included an expert in public health.

The first was Dr Kerry Chant, who is now the NSW Chief Health Officer. Dr Chant was succeeded by Dr Stephen Corbett, the director of the Centre for Population Health with the Sydney West Area Health Service.

But the Primary Industries Minister, Katrina Hodgkinson, has replaced the entire board without making an equivalent appointment.

The legislation that governs the authority stipulates board members must, individually or collectively, have ”qualifications and experience relevant to water quality and public health”.

Ms Hodgkinson said the new board was chosen ”on the basis of their collective depth of experience across a range of measures including water quality and public health, catchment management and protection, and water supply planning and asset management”.

The authority itself had ”extensive technical skills and expertise” to manage risks to water quality or public health, she said.

But a senior lecturer at the University of NSW and a member of the water quality advisory committee to the National Health and Medical Research Council, Dr Stuart Khan, said the presence of a public health expert was crucial.

”Managing water quality to protect public health is the core mission of the Sydney Catchment Authority,” Dr Khan said.

”It’s essential that appropriate expertise exists at the highest levels to ensure that this remains fundamental to the culture and focus of the organisation.”

There are also concerns about the appointment of a former treasurer of the federal Liberal Party, Mark Bethwaite, to the board.

Mr Bethwaite, who is set to become chairman, is a former director of two of Australia’s largest mining companies, North Limited and Renison Goldfields, but is also on the board of the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife.

The appointment has raised fears about the authority’s future position on mining activity in the catchment.

A company not associated with Mr Bethwaite, Apex Energy, has plans to drill for coal seam gas in parts of the catchment area.

”One of the key challenges facing the new board will be the management of water-quality risks associated with coal seam gas drilling in Sydney’s water catchment,” the chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, Pepe Clarke, said.

The opposition environment spokesman, Luke Foley, said 4.5 million people relied on water supplied by the Sydney Catchment Authority.

”The appointment to the board of a former Liberal Party official with an extensive background in the mining industry, while leaving it without a public health expert, is an abandonment of the obligation to protect public health,” he said.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.


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