FOR as long as they can remember, the residents of the Pacific Highway hamlet of Hexham have been waiting for the sort of mains sewerage system that the rest of Newcastle's suburbs take for granted.
Even in fine weather, the smell of the various septic systems is never far away.
A group of Hexham residents who took the Newcastle Herald on a tour of their streets on Thursday, armed with a list of complaints and stories about promises and fob-offs, of blocked drains and neglected gutters that contribute to the flooding that covers their properties in sewage-contaminated water whenever there are decent rains.
Rita Grima moved to Hexham four years ago from Sydney and is yet to have the outrage knocked out of her by time.
She says the bureaucrats whose only interest in Hexham is in charging everyone "duplicated" septic tank "inspection" fees - "Hunter Water and Newcastle council" - are welcome to spend a bit of time in the suburb to see how "the other half lives".
"The stink is so bad that we live with the windows closed," Ms Grima said. "I keep plugs in the sink and the bath to stop the smell coming in that way. Everything outside is covered in an oily film.
"It floods when it rains and we literally wade through toilet water. Then the grey nomads stop beside the highway to dump their tanks, and believe me, they do."
The 70 or so households at Hexham - along with properties at Raworth at Maitland and Rothbury North in Cessnock - are regarded as next on the list after Hunter Water finishes a $36-million project to sewer 400 properties at Wyee, due to be operational in March.
But it appears the residents are expected to foot most of a bill of at least $5 million - which they say they cannot afford - despite Hunter Water sending $177 million to the state government in dividends in the past two years, and more than $400 million since 2011.
The residents who spoke with the Herald say the lack of progress despite various previous promises makes them wonder whether there are other, undeclared, motives at play. Kim Hewitt and her partner Rhys and their young children Marrie and Odin live on one of the short side-streets near the McDonald's restaurant.
"I've lived here all my life, and I can't imagine living anywhere else," Ms Hewitt said.
"But everybody ignores us. We're hemmed in by the coal trains and the dust on one side, and the highway getting busier all the time on the other."
Responding to Herald questions, Hunter Water said that under "revised" rules by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART), "existing property owners" were "direct beneficiaries" of having the sewer connected and "liable for the costs" of new wastewater works.
Hunter Water said it was "legally obliged" to follow IPART's "methodology" when "considering any future priority backlog sewer schemes".
It said IPART did allow "some" costs to come from its general revenues but "only where there are direct and quantifiable environmental and/or public health benefits".
Kim Hewitt's father, John Hewitt, has prawned the Hunter River all his life. He and wife Beverley have "no doubt" about environmental impacts, with sewage seeping into the river.
A "contamination assessment" done in 2012 for the coal rail lines said "effluent irrigation" - the legal spraying of treated effluent from Hexham commercial properties - was a likely source of "widespread" contamination and "concentrations" of faecal coliforms and Escherichia coli [bacteria] in the Hexham wetland.
Newcastle and Cessnock councils have both criticised Hunter Water over its decision to stop collecting an "Environmental Improvement Charge" - most recently set at $41.01 a year - that IPART acknowledged had been used to fund "backlog" projects including Wyee.
Newcastle council told IPART that the Environment Protection Authority and NSW Health had both rated sewering Hexham "top priority".
In its 2020-24 price determination, IPART said Hunter Water had "no NSW government direction to undertake further backlog sewage works".
It acknowledged that Newcastle and Cessnock councils "strongly" supported retaining the charge, but said it "accepted" Hunter Water's decision to "discontinue" it.
State Labor member for Newcastle Tim Crakanthorp said it was "absolutely outrageous" that Hunter Water would send so much in dividends to Sydney but not fund basic infrastructure in Newcastle.
HUNTER WATER'S FULL STATEMENT TO THE HERALD
Hunter Water continues to work collaboratively with local councils across the region to understand priority backlog sewer areas including Hexham.
In late 2018, the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) updated its methodology for determining the funding and delivery of backlog sewer services by Hunter Water. We are legally obliged to apply this methodology when considering future backlog sewer schemes.
Under the revised methodology, existing property owners (as the direct beneficiaries of the schemes) are liable for the costs associated with building an extension of Hunter Water's wastewater network to connect to their properties. IPART's new methodology does allow for the recovery of some of the delivery costs from our broader customer base through the wastewater service charges, but only where there are direct and quantifiable environmental and/or public health benefits. Hunter Water is working with local councils to understand these potential benefits across priority areas.
Our current priority is for the delivery of backlog sewer services to the town of Wyee, which will provide direct connections to 400 homes and businesses, as well as cater for future growth. We are close to finalising the project, with property connections expected from March.
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