Revealed: Councils' dirty little secrets

FOUL HABIT: Councils have been penalised for discharging sewage into rivers and coastal waterways, including near Titahi Bay where Chantelle Hemara and Hayden Todd enjoy swimming.
FOUL HABIT: Councils have been penalised for discharging sewage into rivers and coastal waterways, including near Titahi Bay where Chantelle Hemara and Hayden Todd enjoy swimming.

Councils are breaching the Resource Management Act by discharging poorly treated or untreated sewage into rivers and coastal waterways at a rate of once every five weeks.

Two of the worst incidents, each involving millions of litres of effluent, were resolved in July with large fines imposed on the offending councils.

Porirua City Council was ordered to donate nearly $40,000 to stream restoration in June for discharging a full day's sewage into a stream and the sea near Titahi Bay on October 12 last year.

The overflow killed aquatic life and made the area unsafe for swimming, with a brown plume stretching about 100 metres into the sea and smelling strongly of grease and fat.

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Waikato District Council was fined more than $55,000 after a failure at the Raglan sewage plant in June last year led to five million litres of sewage entering a tribal tributary of Raglan Harbour.

Three staff were sacked and one quit following the incident, which a district court judge said stemmed from systemic failure "revealing poor training, supervision and ultimate management".

Figures released under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act reveal that in the six financial years from 2007/08 to 2013/14 there were 179 actions - infringement notices, abatement notices or prosecutions - against 49 councils.

Sixty-five of those involved the discharging of untreated or partially treated wastewater to water - a rate of one every five weeks over six years. Twelve involved discharging the same to land.

Massey University ecologist Mike Joy said the figures were just "the tip of the iceberg" and he believed fines were issued only as a "last resort after much pleading and threatening".

He wanted to see councils ordered to put funds toward fixing sewerage plants rather than being fined.

"It's like fining some poor person for having bald tires on car - it makes it even less likely they will fix it. But if they were forced to put money into cleaning up it would force them to rethink priorities," he said.

Federated Farmers environment spokesman Ian McKenzie said the figures showed farmers were not solely to blame for poor water quality.

"Most urban authorities need to spend substantial amounts of money to upgrade their sewerage and storm water systems to cope with existing requirements of the National Policy Statement let alone bring water quality standards up to swimming standards," McKenzie said.

Fish and Game chief executive Bryce Johnson said sewage getting into rivers and streams was "undoubtedly an ongoing issue that requires greater attention".

He said pollution by dairy farmers seemed to attract greater fines that those imposed on councils and called for a stronger line.

"That might encourage offending councils to ensure they've invested in the basics before splashing out on vote-catching swimming pools or recreation centres. There is just no excuse for a 21st century wastewater system to discharge untreated sewage into our rivers."

Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule said there was "no evidence" that councils were not held to account as rigidly as rural operators.

"As a broad generalisation, fines for private operators [typically dairy discharges or bulk earthworks for sediment] can be higher than councils for municipal discharges. However, it's a case by case situation. In fact, the figures suggest that [councils] receive the same quantum of fine as rural operators."

Councils often put fine money towards remediation in the catchment area where an incident took place, he said.

Locals at Titahi Bay, north of the Porirua spill site, said this week that water quality was important.

Hayden Todd and Chantelle Hemara swam and fished in the sea over summer.

The quality of the water was "very" important, Todd said, and more should be done to protect it for beachgoers.

Teacher aide Velli Ualesi felt water quality had improved in recent years but beach litter, including used nappies and bottles, was getting worse.



- Most pollution in waterways comes from farms but the country's more than 300 sewage treatment plants are also partly responsible, with many carrying out "only primary or secondary treatment, which may be inadequate for reducing pollutants", a 2012 Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment report said.

- Of 179 actions between 2007/08 and 2013/14, there were 78 infringement notices which resulted in fines of up to $750, ninety were abatement notices and 11 were prosecutions. (Abatement notices require a person to stop any activity contravening the Resource Management Act, resource consent or council plan. Infringement notices impose an instant fine of $300 to $1000. Prosecutions occur only in the most serious cases).

- Of the 11 prosecutions, seven involved discharges of wastewater entering waterways. \\

- One prosecution was unsuccessful, one was withdrawn with the territorial authority involved (Selwyn District Council) agreeing to donate $32,000 toward stream enhancement, one resulted in an order of costs and some riparian planting. The others resulted in fines of $10,000 (Waipa District Council), $20,000 (donation ordered to be paid by Carterton District Council), $26,843 (Tararua District Council) $30,000 (Taupo District Council), $35,000 (Invercargill District Council), $37,500 (Hamilton City Council), $39,375 (Porirua City Council) and $56,250 (Waikato District Council).

Figures do not include actions taken by the former Auckland Regional Council or Auckland City Council prior to the 2012/13 year. 

Sunday Star Times