Council may avoid big fine for spill

Hamilton ratepayers may avoid a huge fine over a sewage spill into the Waikato River from the city's wastewater treatment plant last year.

Sentencing for Hamilton City Council was deferred for restorative justice when the council appeared in the Hamilton District Court yesterday.

However, the regional council's head of investigations doesn't expect a "light" outcome.

The deferment yesterday drew fresh calls from Federated Farmers Waikato president James Houghton for a level playing field on pollution charges.

He said the farming advocacy group had previously supported restorative justice as an alternative to fines, where negligence was not involved.

City council Infrastructure General Manager Chris Allen said stream restoration, planting and fencing in the vicinity of the spill and along the unnamed tributary of the river were mooted as part of the settlement.

“We apologise for this spill, and have great respect for the Waikato River and understand its significance and importance to the region and its people."

Waikato Regional Council investigations manager Patrick Lynch said restorative justice had been used for a similar matter involving Waipa District Council several years ago, and was often more onerous than fines.

He said the formal process would include an independent mediator being appointed to consult with the parties who had been affected by the spill.

The council will reappear in November.

It had earlier pleaded guilty to a pollution charge brought by the Waikato Regional Council in January.

It admitted allowing tens of thousands of litres of partially treated human sewage into the Waikato River, in a "significant" spill, in July last year.

The council had faced a fine of up to $600,000 before yesterday's appearance. Its guilty plea followed the withdrawal of a similar Resource Management Act charge against city council worker Kevin Burgess.

He had faced a fine of up to $300,000 and two years in prison.

"Obviously it still needs to be a meaningful process," said Mr Lynch.

"People need to go into this process with their eyes open. It's not a more attractive, light option, it's about showing remorse for what they've done."

Mr Houghton said Federated Farmers recognised the city council was just like anyone else, but farmers wanted fair and equal treatment for all.

The regional council in January said it was prosecuting after 90,000 litres of sewage sludge entered the river from the Pukete wastewater treatment plant.

An investigation revealed another 22,000 litres of sludge had been spilled, but had not reached the river. Mechanical failure, alarm settings and an overflow pipe blockage were blamed, as was "clarity and response to standard operating procedure".

Waikato Times