10 Oct 2019

New Plymouth council under fire for handling of water complaints

7:03 pm on 10 October 2019

The New Plymouth District Council has been taken to task for its handling of complaints about its water infrastructure.

Luke Sowman,11, found dozens of dead fish and eels in the Mangati Stream at Bell Block, New Plymouth

Luke Sowman,11, found dozens of dead fish and eels in the Mangati Stream in January this year. Photo: RNZ/ Robin Martin

An annual Audit New Zealand report has found the council is not complying with Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) guidance on the recording of complaints about drinking water quality, storm water infrastructure and its sewage system.

The report was considered at an extraordinary meeting of council today.

It reveals that the district council only records the first call about any particular issue when the DIA says it should record each and every complaint.

"Where there is more than one complaint per event, each complaint is counted separately, not each event or occurrence. This records the public's response to the event," the report said, quoting the DIA advice.

The council was also unable to provide Audit New Zealand complete records for all complaints made to it about its water infrastructure.

"We requested that the district council review all calls to identify any additional complaints that should have been recorded. However we found that complete records for all calls made to the council, including those received after-hours were not available.

"As a result, the district council has been unable to report completely on these complaints performance measures for the year and the number of complaints reported is understated."

Audit New Zealand said one complaint had also been misinterpreted and it was unable to say whether the council's recording of its response to the complaints it had received was "materially correct".

The council figures showed it had received two complaints (per 1000 properties connected) about its stormwater network in the 2018-2019 year when its targets was seven or less; eight complaints about the sewage system when its target was 13 or less; and eight complaints about water supply when the target was 10 or less.

It said its officers were handling complaints in a manner it thought was in line with expectations.

"As a result of the audit comments a review was done of all major call days for the last 18 months to provide a revised figure. Clear methodology and process to collect this data going forward is being developed," the council said in the report.

Urgent changes recommended

Audit New Zealand has recommended urgent changes.

"We recommend that the district council record all complaints in the system based on the DIA guidance. Procedures should be established to ensure this is formalised, in the event of a change in staff."

Last month, the Taranaki Regional Council announced it was initiating legal action against the New Plymouth District Council for a sewage spill into the Mangati Stream in Bell Block in January.

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.

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.

The council erected warning signs at Mangati Beach immediately after the spill, 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, until RNZ made enquiries a week later.

The Mayor Neil Holdom described it as an environmental disaster.

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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