18 Sep 2019

New Plymouth council facing legal action over sewage spill

5:49 pm on 18 September 2019

Bell Block residents and local hapū say they are "stoked" that the New Plymouth District Council is to be prosecuted over a massive discharge of raw sewage into the Mangati Stream.

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Kim Sowman, centre, and son Luke are pleased that someone is being held to account for a major discharge of sewage into the Mangati Stream. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

More than 1.5 million litres of human effluent - or the equivalent of half the volume of an Olympic-sized swimming pool - was spilled into the stream, an environmental disaster. The council only went public with the scale of the problem after RNZ enquiries.

During the spill on the weekend of 21-22 January about a kilometre of the Mangati Stream ran white and dozens of fish and eels were killed.

Now the Taranaki Regional Council says it has initiated legal action against "a number of parties" for the major discharge of sewage from a district council pump station.

Puketapu and Ngāti Tawhirikura hapū member Glen Skipper said prosecutions could not come soon enough.

"I'm happy that's come to a head. You know there's been continuous like bi-monthly issues happening with the pump station at Mangati.

"It shouldn't require this kind of action but if it does and we're going to get some movement finally I'm all for it."

Mr Skipper said there was no point in having a sewage carousel the envy of other cities if the system for getting the waste there was not up to the job.

"It's an affront at the end of the day. There is no way in the modern world that we are living in now that we should be using our waterways at all to get rid of waste or that is acceptable for anything to go in there that isn't just rain coming off the land."

Mr Skipper said in his hapū roles he was constantly getting notifications of contaminants getting into streams across the New Plymouth district.

Kim Sowman's son, Luke, came home on that Sunday in January in tears because there were so many dead eels in the stream.

"So we got in the car the next morning on the way to school and went to have a look and indeed there was a lot of dead things around," Ms Sowman said.

"There was definitely a lot of dead fish and dead eels and just the colour of the stream ... you could tell without even getting close to it that there was something wrong with it. The colour was off and it was just horrible."

Immediately after the spill the council erected warning signs at the Mangati Beach and informed hapū and the regional council, but it did not issue a media release or use the news pages of its website or its social media channels to alert the public to the scale of the spill.

New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom.

Mayor Neil Holdom Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mayor Neil Holdom initially told RNZ the council had followed policy, but later apologised and admitted that given the scale of the environmental disaster it should have been more proactive.

Ms Sowman says the lack of information from the council put people's health at risk.

"I think the biggest thing was that they did something wrong and they didn't do anything to make it right. That was the biggest thing. They were quite prepared not to acknowledge they had done anything wrong.

"At the very outset whoever was responsible should've done something about it. It shouldn't have taken children and residents to identify it and then start asking questions."

Ms Sowman said there should have been more widespread publicity about the problem.

"Yeah absolutely and to actually go: 'look we got it wrong and we're really sorry we've done this' you know because they killed a lot of our wildlife."

Mr Holdom was not available for an interview today, but said in an email that the city was investing more than $600 million in water infrastructure and coastal protection over the next decade, including the additional $44 million committed to boosting infrastructure resilience following the water outage in 2018.

"Our engineering team has been tasked with taking a fresh look at the material risks to our infrastructure and to report back with recommendations on what improvements could be implemented over the next few years to reduce the risk of environmental contaminants finding their way into our waterways or the risks of future water outages to ensure we improve our performance every year as our community expects."

Mr Holdom said because the matter was before the courts it would be inappropriate for him to comment further.

Meanwhile, Ms Sowman said she and Luke were just rapt that someone was being held to account.

"To be honest I'm really stoked about it because it's not okay because that's our stream and a lot of kids play in it and lots of animals live in it and it just needs to be looked after.

"And Luke is stoked too. I've just told him now and he said: 'that's really cool' so he's thrilled."

The council and the as yet unnamed other parties will face charges under the Resource Management Act in the Environment Court.

NPDC chief executive Craig Stevenson has experience of the hefty fines the court can hand down.

He was in charge of the South Taranaki District Council in 2015 when it was fined $115,000 for its part in the Eltham buttermilk debacle, which stunk out the town for months in 2013.

It was an environmental disaster for which Fonterra also attracted a $192,000 fine.

Earlier, the Taranaki Regional Council said it was prosecuting "a number of parties" following the discharge from a Bell Block pump station into the Mangati Stream in January.

It said for legal reasons it can make no further comment on the matter.

RNZ understands the discharge initially involved a plant failure overnight on 21 January and a subsequent operational failure which allowed raw sewage to flow into the stream for about 10 hours.

RNZ broke the story about dead fish and eels being discovered in a Mangati Stream which had been running white on 28 January.

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Glen Skipper, board member of the Ngāti Tawhirikura hapū at the polluted Mangati Stream (file photo). Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mr Holdom blamed outdated infrastructure for the spill and he warned building in a fail-safe would come with a hefty bill over the entire network.

There have been 125 sewage discharges in New Plymouth over the last five years - a figure that has decreased year on year - and 15 sewage discharges alone at Mangati Stream since 2010.

Most recently 60 tonnes of fat overwhelmed one pump station in the west of the city, spilling sewage onto Ngā Motu Beach and forcing at least one school to close and several suburbs to forgo flushing toilets.

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