A COMPANY associated with Cr Jeremy Rich, Ansevata Nominees Pty Ltd, has hit the South Gippsland Shire Council with a bill for almost $200,000.
It represents an average of $10 per ratepayer owed to the Rich family.
The invoice, claiming “not less than $198,892.06”, is, according to the shire, based on Ansevata’s view that it has been unable to take water for stock and irrigation purposes from the shire’s Walkerville Retarding Basin, according to an agreement it has with the shire, since March 2016, when it was advised by the shire of a high reading for E.coli in the dam.
In a letter to the ‘Sentinel-Times’ this week, Ansevata says it has been unable to use the water since 2015 and has also had to reduce carrying capacity on the adjoining farm and to buy in stock feed as a result (see ‘Letters’ page).
The debt claimed by Ansevata reportedly rises by approximately $11,000 a month, based on a cost of $2650 per megalitre, plus interest.
But it’s an impost that the councillors are being asked to reject, at their meeting on Wednesday, March 28, following the publication of several highly credentialed reports dismissing the Rich family’s claims of contamination.
The publication of the reports last Thursday, as part of the shire’s agenda for its meeting on March 28, sent shockwaves through the council which was largely unaware the investigations were taking place.
And it has completely overshadowed the council’s main set-piece for the year, the publication of its draft budget for 2018-19.
Incidentally the shire council is proposing a rate rise of 2 per cent and $21 million in capital works next financial year (see story inside).
But Item 6.1 on the agenda for the meeting on March 28, ‘Walkerville Retarding Basin’, and not the budget, is set to dominate proceedings between now and the 28th and will almost certainly be raised at a council-closed session tomorrow morning, Wednesday, March 21 before the proposed budget is formally presented at 12.30pm.
The Mayor Cr Lorraine Brunt said last Friday that the council had been aware of the $198,892 invoice from Ansevata Nominees for quite some time.
“The last bill came in on January 26, 2018 and so far totals that figure,” Cr Brunt said.
“I imagine there’s a further two months to come,” she said.
“We brought in some specialists to assess the claims and it is being brought forward for council’s consideration now that we have all the research available.
“It has been recommended to Council that it not pay the bill because it is not appropriate.”
Asked if council made a mistake in paying Ansevata Nominees $65,000 to settle an earlier claim about water from the retarding basin, Cr Brunt said part of that figure related to the use of between 0.4mgL and 0.5mgL of water by the shire for road making purposes and also Ansevata’s legal expenses.
“Council thought at the time that it might settle the issue,” she said.
But it hasn’t.
The costly dispute has continued to rage with the shire revealing it has already spent $101,472 on regular water testing, $65,000 to settle the earlier claim, it will spend an estimated $20,000 on reinstating the basin to a capacity of 14mgL and an untold amount on consultants’ reports and legal fees.
In addition to its regular monitoring of the retarding basin, as per the agreement with Ansevata, Council retained RM Consulting Group Pty Ltd (RMCG), an independent agricultural and technical consulting firm based in Bendigo, which produced a report undertaken by its principal, Anna Kelliher (BA, BEng Hons, MIEAust, GAICD) an environmental engineer and Senior Consultant, Hilary Hall (MEngSci, BEng) an engineer in wastewater operations and consulting.
According to the report:
“The outcomes included: (a.) The risk for stormwater to be contaminated by domestic waste water necessarily contemplates a search for the presence of human faecal bacteria as a focus. The testing did not detect any such human bacterioids, and the marker abundance was low. (b.) Observing secure fencing around the basin, animal bacterioids identified were likely to be from birdlife in the Basin, presenting a lower risk to livestock or human health. (c.) In relation to the concern expressed on an ongoing basis about E.coli levels, the report concludes that the water is satisfactory for irrigation on pasture and crops and for watering stock.”
Council also commissioned a report by Dr David Rendell, a veterinary scientist (to be available from Monday, March 19, 2018). Dr Rendell, who is based in south-west Victoria and consults across Australia, practised for almost 40 years, including in the area of beef cattle. Given his retirement his now former associate Kathryn Robertson has reviewed and now jointly authored the report.
“The report observes, in part: (a.) For stock drinking, E.coli levels of over “400 per 100” are relatively common and above 1000 are not usual when drinking from farm dams or natural water sources. (b.) Faecal contamination rarely impacts livestock health until the contamination reaches a level where it is readily observable with the naked eye and/or offensive to smell. (c.) To achieve those high levels, E.coli would need to be many times higher than seen at the Basin, with levels up to 1,000 being unlikely to have any detectable odour.”
It is on the basis of this scientific work that the shire’s administration has recommended the following action to council:
“That Council: (1.) Accept this report reflecting and answering the concerns of Ansevata Nominees Pty Ltd and the proposed actions by Council. (2.) Proceed with the minor works to reinstate the capacity of the Walkerville Retarding Basin. (3.) Continue to meet its obligations under the 1990 agreement between the Shire of Woorayl and Ansevata Nominees Pty Ltd in relation to: (a.) Making the water supply available; (b.) Providing details of monitoring. (4.) In accordance with its statutory and regulatory responsibilities, continue with the management, review and assessment of septic tank waste water systems within Promontory Views Estate. (5.) Invite Ansevata to collaboratively renegotiate the terms of the 1990 agreement, including any wish by Ansevata itself to measure, manage or treat the basin water, before it takes that water for its own purposes.”
Councillors will be asked to vote on that or another recommendation at its council meeting on March 28.
Cr Rich will be required, due to his direct pecuniary interest, to absent himself from the debate.
In summary, the officers’ report to council concludes:
“Council has obtained independent testing and advice in relation to alleged contamination of the sediment and water, and the potential for that to adversely impact either stock or pasture. That testing shows: (a.) No adverse impact on basin sediment; (b.) Water quality standards that support the irrigation of pasture and a range of other potential crops; (c.) No likely impact on stock.
“The evidence is that there is no “untreated” septic tank waste entering the basin through sediment or stormwater, and even if that had or did occur, there is no evidence that this has impacted the water quality for Ansevata’s stated purposes as specified in the agreement.
“The evidence is that the sediment build up impacting capacity, is relatively minimal and the minor works mentioned above will restore the capacity.
“The decision of Ansevata not to take water is one solely of Ansevata. The single very high, and likely aberrant, reading was two years ago and on numerous subsequent occasions Council has advised Ansevata it can take water as it wishes, and
“The alleged Council debt of $198,892.06 for an alternative water supply has no merit.”
Clearly Ansevata may take issue with these findings although the shire has reported no response from the firm or its legal representatives to date.
Both Cr Rich, who is believed to be a director of Ansevata Nominees, and the firm’s managing director Jacques Rich, Cr Rich’s father, have been asked for comment.
Ansevata Nominees Pty Ltd is the owner of ‘Marapana’ Walkerville, the farming property which adjoins the retarding basin and which has an agreement to use water from the basin.