Three staff fired, one leaves after discharge

BELINDA FEEK
Last updated 05:00 06/06/2014

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Three Waikato District Council staff were fired while a fourth left of their own volition after 5000 cubic metres of partially-treated sewage overflowed into the Raglan Harbour over three days.

More details surrounding the costly sewage discharge from the Wainui Rd-based Raglan Wastewater Treatment Plant's pond system were revealed during the sentencing of the council in the Hamilton District Court yesterday.

While the full summary of facts is subject to minor changes and not available for public release, the Waikato Times learned that four staff had since left the organisation.

One of those was the treatment plant engineer, or manager, who was working on the day - June 21, last year - the discharge began.

District council lawyer Rob Latton told the court the engineer purposefully ignored the discharge, despite it leaking into the Raglan Harbour.

"(He) outlined that he didn't escalate it as the reputation of the Waikato District Council out at Raglan was already bad and this would only make it worse."

Judge Kirkpatrick said the manager was not before the court so there was nothing that could be done about it except that it was "a message to all staff that you can't run from these things, you can't hide them".

Latton said the sewage that was discharged was one step away from being fully treated and posed little risk to the public, but Judge Kirkpatrick described that as "fortuitous".

"That is the thing that troubles me the most," Judge Kirkpatrick said.

"Had the staff alerted the people they were required to alert . . . that seems to me to be quite serious." Latton said the district council had to accept that and it was "certainly a serious failure by that staff member".

When the levels reach maximum, an alert is sent to the operators computer followed by a text message to each staff member at the site.

Latton said when the district council was informed, it was told by the manager it was an unscheduled pumping due to high rainfall, but omitted to say it had been an overflow.

But Latton said alarm bells should have been ringing well before the discharge as the levels were checked twice a week including prior to the discharge when "dangerously high levels" were noted.

"But for whatever reason again, no steps were taken . . . so then we had a situation on June 21 to 24 of the pond overflowing."

Latton said clearly the computer alert was ignored, and all of the staff claimed no text was sent.

Latton said with four people losing their jobs over the discharge showed how serious the district council took the incident.

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But regional council prosecutor Jamie O'Sullivan said the district council wasn't without fault and failed to inform iwi and local residents in a timely manner, a point accepted by Latton.

O'Sullivan said the district council needing to be reminded of the issue of best practice. How the discharge occurred was still unclear.

Latton suggested a fine within the range of $50,000 to $60,000.

Judge Kirkpatrick reserved his decision but expected it to be released next month. belinda.feek@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

- Waikato Times

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