Councils around the country have been stung $153,000 for 123 indiscretions, including discharging human effluent into waterways, during the past four years.
Information obtained under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act reveals that eight prosecutions, 47 infringement fines and 68 abatement notices have been issued to 34 of the 61 district and city councils between June 2008 and last month.
The fines are a fraction of those imposed on dairy farmers prosecuted for discharging cow effluent to waterways, which have been as high as $90,000.
During the same period, dairy farmers were subject to 151 prosecutions, 1564 infringement notices and 1698 abatement notices, with court-imposed fines totalling more than $3.2 million.
Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills said the council fines "appear modest in respect of what we see farmers being fined".
"If farmers or councils break the rules, then they need to face the consequences, but there needs to be consistency of prosecution."
Local Government NZ president Lawrence Yule said it made no difference whether the offender was a farmer or a council.
"Once a regional council makes a decision about a prosecution and the impact on the environment, the previous history and previous breaches, then I don't think it matters whether it's a farmer, a council or a business."
The decision to prosecute councils was not subject to political influence, as it was made by council officers, he said, and he believed 123 actions over four years was not bad.
Fish & Game chief executive Bryce Johnson said the fines should match the severity of any offence, and for councils the fine should be "probably even higher, given that they are they are effectively the keepers of statute, with no excuse not to know better".
He said the nation's 6 million cows produced the equivalent effluent of 84 million people.
"The fertiliser and effluent impacts of agriculture on water quality are far more widespread across the country than the human effluent impacts of council sewage schemes."
The actions are taken by regional councils and unitary authorities (which act as combined regional councils and territorial authorities).
The only council to refuse to provide the information was Auckland Council (a unitary authority), which said it would provide the information only at a cost of $2052.
Of the other five unitary authorities, the only one to take action was Nelson City Council, which issued itself three infringement fines and three abatement notices.
Five prosecutions involved the discharge of effluent or other matter from wastewater plants into waterways.
Another 35 infringement notices or abatement notices dealt with unlawful discharges of effluent or leachate to water or land. The highest fine for this was $750.
The largest cost imposed on councils for unlawful effluent discharge to date was $30,000. Taupo District Council was ordered to undertake restorative justice projects to this value in 2008 for the unlawful discharge from the Mangakino wastewater plant.
The highest fine imposed on a council was $35,000, which Invercargill City Council was ordered to pay for discharging gaseous and odorous compounds from its wastewater plant.
There were eight prosecutions. Six were successful. One was settled out of court and one is still before court. They were:
Waikato Regional Council v Taupo District Council in 2008-09 for discharging Mangakino effluent to ground. Prosecution resulted in an order to undertake $30,000 of restorative justice projects.
Waikato Regional Council v Waipa District Council in 2008-09 for discharging caustic soda from water treatment plant to Maungauika Stream. Prosecution resulted in a fine of $10,000.
Environment Southland v Invercargill City Council in 2007-08 for discharging gaseous and odorous compounds to air from processing of effluent. Prosecution resulted in a fine of $35,000.
Environment Southland v Gore District Council in 2008-09 for sediment discharge to a stream. Settlement reached after Gore council agreed to pay legal costs and undertake riparian planting and fencing of stream.
Greater Wellington regional council v Carterton District Council in 2011-12 for discharging treated effluent to water. Prosecution resulted in order to pay $20,000 restorative justice to Mangateretere Stream project.
Horizons v Tararua District Council in 2008-09 for unauthorised taking of water for Woodville township. Prosecution resulted in fine of $26,843.
Horizons v Horowhenua District Council in 2008-09 for unauthorised discharge of sewage to water from the Shannon wastewater plant. This prosecution was unsuccessful.
Waikato Regional Council v Hamilton City Council in 2011-12. Hamilton City Council has pleaded guilty to discharging tens of thousands of litres of partially treated effluent into the Waikato River in July 2011. Sentencing takes place in November.
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