Waikato ratepayers billed thousands for possum botch up
The careless and "negligent" handling of a pest control operation by Waikato Regional Council has forced ratepayers to pick up a tab of at least $30,000, and cost a Thames forest company hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Details of the botched possum control operation at Te Mata Forest, and the subsequent settlement, were outlined in a claim for damages, summarised by regional council biosecurity and natural heritage manager John Simmons, and obtained by the Waikato Times.
The settlement relates to a possum eradication programme ordered and contracted out by the regional council in 2009.
The operation in the 471-hectare block of private land north of Thames resulted in significant damage to sections of the pine forest when nails and fencing staples were driven into the trees and the trunks "blazed".
The company awarded the contract, Furpro, went bankrupt soon after the operation. Its indemnity insurance had lapsed.
Te Mata Forest Ltd claimed damages of $753,000 for the destruction of the plantation, but the two parties settled on a payment to Te Mata of $300,000, the document said.
The regional council was to pay $30,000 and its insurer $270,000.
The council confirmed a payment has been made, but chief executive Vaughan Payne said he could not disclose the settlement sum.
Mr Payne said the vast bulk of the settlement was met by the council's insurers, not ratepayers, and changes had been made since the incident.
"One of the steps we have taken following this case is to ensure that we now sight our contractors' paid-up, receipted insurance policies."
Both parties signed a confidentiality agreement regarding the settlement and Te Mata chairman Jim Glen declined to comment.
However, Duncan Farmer, a shareholder at Te Mata who is not bound by the agreement, called the council's behaviour "absolutely appalling".
Mr Farmer, who oversees pest control in the forest, said the incident caused "major concern" to shareholders.
Te Mata Forest had to go cap in hand to the bank to protect its investment, he said.
"There has been some real angst there."
The Waikato Times was given details of the incident by Thames Landcare spokesperson Graeme Sturgeon.
Mr Sturgeon, who had been involved with pest control in Te Mata in the past, said several shareholders were members of Thames Landcare.
"It annoys us that Te Mata Forest - which has such a good pest control programme in place - can be bullied by Waikato Regional Council."
The programme was ordered by the council as part of the Peninsula Project in 2009.
When Te Mata owners did not agree to the use of aerial 1080 at the forest, the council advertised a tender for ground control and subsequently awarded the contract to now-bankrupt Furpro.
Mr Farmer said Te Mata also put in a tender, but the council rejected its offer.
He said there was not a major possum problem in the forest anyway.
But the regional council, using powers under the Biosecurity Act 1993, accredited Furpro as the contractor for the operation, and served Te Mata owners with a notice to enter their land and undertake pest control.
Once the operation was under way, it was noticed that Furpro had damaged the plantation and was not following "industry accepted" practice.
Cyanide bait bags were being secured to the trunks of the trees by 75mm nails and 50mm fencing staples. The pines were also being "blazed", where the bark is removed with a machete or axe, to set traps.
Mr Farmer said the company faced losing the bottom 600mm of each tree or the timber being rejected at a saw mill because there were nails in the trunk.
"We still have to signal to the saw millers that there were nails in the trees. That could very well have an effect on our final price."
According to the claim for damages summary, the regional council received legal advice that the claim was "indefensible" and settlement was the best option.
Te Mata claimed that because Furpro was only accredited to undertake the work and not "authorised", the contractor should have been accompanied onto the property by an authorised person from the council.
The company claimed it was misled by the regional council and, as a result, the council was liable.
Mr Farmer said the handling of the contract was "negligent" and the council should have been more scrupulous when it awarded the contract.
"It smacks to me of total and utter incompetence in every respect. It started with Environment Waikato [now Waikato Regional Council], then Furpro."