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Environment and History

Sludge on Tap: Queensland's First Water Pollution Legislation, 1944-1985

Jan Wegner

Environment and History 15 (2009): 199-216. doi: 10.3197/096734009X437981

Before the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, controls on water pollution in Australia were piecemeal, scattered through a number of Acts. These often regulated pollution by compromises with the polluters, rather than preventing it outright, unless a threat to public health could be proved. This situation characterised the first Act written specifically to control water pollution in the Australian state of Queensland, sparked by the pollution of the Herbert River with tin dredge effluent after 1944. Conditions imposed on the dredge operations were compromises, chosen for their utility for dredging rather than their effectiveness, and further legislation maintained the situation so that pollution of the river and water supplies drawn from it continued for 40 years. The Act, and the pollution episode which sparked it, are an example of a theme noticeable in some pre-1970s pollution cases: controls were imposed that were cheap to implement or useful to the polluting agency, but which were ineffective in stopping pollution outright. Unfortunately, in Queensland, that attitude persisted after other jurisdictions had moved to more environmentally sensitive styles of pollution management.

KEYWORDS: Water pollution, dredging history, tin dredging

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