Image from Parramatta River Catchment Group

Material runoff from construction sites greatly contributes to the pollution of Australia’s waterways, adding large amounts of sediment and chemicals, particularly after heavy rainfalls. 

NSW councils and environmental agencies will again conduct their Get the Site Right campaign this May, to educate builders and home renovators on how to stop materials like soil, sand and cement from entering stormwater drains. 

Campaign vice chair Penny Pedersen told The Fifth Estate that on some sites, up to four truckloads of runoff can be washed into nearby waterways in just one heavy rain episode. 

“Stormwater runoff is the greatest source of pollution affecting our waterways,” Ms Pedersen said. 

“It’s not just soil because we know on building sites there could be all sorts of things just laying on top of the ground and stormwater washes that down into the drains.”

Builders and home renovators are responsible for the runoff from their worksites

Common building materials like sand and cement contain chemical compounds including calcium oxide, chromium and silica which can contaminate waterways and build up in marine species. 

The contamination of waterways and green spaces is very often also clearly visible, making water murky and odorous and having a direct impact on public use of those spaces.  

“With the Parramatta River Catchment Group (PRCG) we have a master plan to make the river swimmable again in some spots and (runoff) can have a huge impact on that,” Ms Pederson said.  

Get the Site Right was launched by the PRCG in 2016 and has since become a joint effort involving the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) and Environment Protection Authority (EPA), as well as several other councils and waterways protection groups. 

The campaign involves a one-day “inspection blitz” with potential fines in the thousands of dollars for those not in compliance.

EPA officers conduct a site inspection

“If council and EPA officers turn up at a building site and there’s absolutely no effort at all to control sediment and it’s just washing into the river, particularly those developments that are riverside or close to tributaries, then they get fined,” Ms Pedersen said.

However, she added that developers tended to comply once they learned what was expected of them, and since the campaign started compliance rates had increased from 47 per cent to 74 per cent.

“It’s important that we do this now, because going forward we’re going to have a lot more adverse weather conditions. We’ve seen it already, massive storms and they’re going to be more frequent.

“So with more frequency comes the chance we’re going to see more sediment washing into our waterways.”

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