THE HERALD'S OPINION: Action needed over the rubbish spill into the ocean off Stockton

IF an old forgotten tip began spewing rubbish into the surf at Merewether or Newcastle beach, it’s a fair bet to say that a full-scale cleanup would be under way immediately, lest the region’s reputation as an ocean paradise be sullied.

Yet that’s precisely what’s happened this week at Stockton beach, with surfers reporting a lineup full of plastic bags and other refuse on Tuesday morning, washed into the water from an old abandoned tip on the edge of the ocean, a few hundred metres beyond the northern end of the township.

The old landfill, which may have been used as late as the 1970s, was exposed to the elements by the extraordinarily strong swell that hit this section of coast last week.

Although warning tape was placed around some of the exposed material, nothing seems to have been done to stop the refuse itself from being washed or blown into the water. The amount of material in the surf would seem to indicate that the authorities have been caught off guard. And not just the warning from last week, when the tip was on the front page of the Newcastle Herald.

Environmental Group Tangaroa Blue says it contacted Newcastle City Council more than 18 months ago about the problem, talking with council staff and providing GPS co-ordinates of the troubled site.

Stockton Landcare also says the council has been aware of the problem for some time, yet the council’s position on Tuesday was that its staff could not find anything amiss when they visited the site in 2016, after a “member of the public” raised the alert.

Although the council and land owner Hunter Water will now, belatedly, get to work to clean up things as best they can, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the old tip was considered far enough away from most of the public to be “out of sight, out of mind”, as far as the council and Hunter Water are concerned.

Hunter Water should have also known about the problem on its land, and either alerted state government environmental authorities, or – better still – done something itself to staunch the flow of rubbish.

Instead, we see yet more plastic introduced into the sea – material that will never break down but which may well end up as a last, choking meal for an unsuspecting sea bird or turtle. Already left off the council’s coastal management plan, Stockton and its residents deserve more consideration than they’ve been getting.

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