Council denies wastewater is harming Manawatu River

WASTEWATER DEBATEL: The Manawatu River.
WARWICK SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

WASTEWATER DEBATEL: The Manawatu River.

The Palmerston North City Council is continuing to deny that its treated wastewater is doing much harm to the Manawatu River.

It claims a resource commissioners' interim finding that it is failing to safeguard the life-supporting capacity of the river is fundamentally flawed.

Council lawyer Philip Milne argues that consent conditions proposed in their interim decision would waste $30 million of city ratepayers' money.

Although the commissioners said they were not convinced nitrogen should be removed from the discharge, Milne's interpretation of the proposed conditions was that it would be required. That would be on top of a $2.9m plant proposed to extract more phosphorus.

Phosphorus and nitrogen contribute to the fast growth of algae which is at the heart of the problem of harm to the river.

Milne said a new nitrogen plant might be needed about 6 1/2 years before the discharge consent expired in 2028.

The long-term possibility of other solutions, such as land-based disposal, could make the expensive facility redundant, Milne said.

Independent environmental consultant and expert witness Greg Carlyon said Milne was painting a worst-case scenario.

"He has been catastrophising," he said.

Carlyon used to be Horizons Regional Council's regional planning and regulatory group manager, issuing the city council with the non-compliance order in 2011 which eventually led to the commissioners' hearing in November.

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Milne's alternative proposal would give the council several more years to review the best practicable option for wastewater disposal, and could see long-term changes made earlier than might otherwise be the case.

Palmerston North Mayor Grant Smith said he wanted solutions before 2028, but the commissioners' 2022 goal was probably not realistic.

"Our take on things is that if we are going to do something, let's do it properly, not piecemeal."

His preference would be to work something out in a co-operative way without getting bogged down in legal processes.

"We would be trying to take it out of the confrontational court room environment. I know that's the wish of our councillors, but if we end up back in the Environment Court, then so be it."

Horizons chief executive Michael McCartney said the regional council was happy with the panel's interim finding that the discharge was harming the river.

Horizons' formal response to the panel's decision focused only on proposed conditions and suggested changes to ensure they worked.

McCartney said the solutions needed to be affordable and the time frame realistic. His personal view was that the city council should embark sooner rather than later on a comprehensive review and public consultation on options.

Horizons remained open to working with the city council.

But he also warned regional councillors to be on "amber alert" that the issue was one of many that could end up being appealed in the Environment Court.

 - Manawatu Standard

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