25 Jan 2021

Waste water breaches: Government urged to amend law to allow companies to be fined

5:43 pm on 25 January 2021

Pressure is piling on the government to urgently amend the law so companies caught dumping contaminated waste water down the drain can be fined.

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Councils have been pleading for the last 18 years to fix a loophole in the law to allow them to issue fines, without success (File image). Photo: 123RF

Opposition parties and environmental groups are all calling for change after RNZ revealed hundreds of companies have breached their trade waste consents - often multiple times - in the past year, without penalty.

Forest and Bird spokesperson Tom Kay said amending the Local Government Act must be a top priority for the government so companies that breached consents were held to account.

"And it's a really simple fix. The minister needs to make it a priority to address that as soon as possible. We understand there is a draft bill out there that can be picked up and progressed really rapidly to plug that hole in the Local Government Act," Kay said.

"To be honest, it's insane that this has just been pushed off the agenda for several decades."

Greenpeace spokesperson Jessica Desmond said the large number of big brands found to have multiple breaches was concerning.

"A lot of them are very well known New Zealand companies, a lot of them spend a lot of time and money telling the public how sustainable they are," Desmond said.

"Actions speak louder than words and when you have something like 700 breaches of a consent, that is a real pattern of behaviour that indicates the environment is not something that is being prioritised."

National Party local government spokesperson Christopher Luxon had some choice words for companies that breached their consents.

"You're living in the dark ages.

"Being a former CEO of Air New Zealand and at Unilever as well ... it's quite shocking that companies would breach their trade waste consents."

It was "common sense" to amend the law to allow fines to be issued, he said.

"We have to make sure we have a system in place where, if you're not going to respect our rules, then we enforce them."

Green Party three waters spokesperson Eugenie Sage would also be lobbying her Labour colleagues for change.

Minister of Conservation visiting workers removing wilding pines in Craigie Burn

Green Party three waters spokesperson Eugenie Sage says incentives are needed to encourage companies to reduce waste being produced. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

But more incentives were needed to encourage companies to reduce the amount of waste they were producing in the first place, she said.

"Iceland uses every single part of a fish. The skins go to handbags, bones and things for collagen. There's certainly exciting work happening in this field, but I think some more research and encouragement in this space would really help."

The Act Party also agreed councils should be able to issue spot fines for consent breaches.

"It's really not good enough that a loophole in the Local Government Act that these companies rely on to escape financial sanction has been known about for nearly two decades," Act Party local government spokesperson Simon Court said.

"Businesses that regularly breach their consents are expecting the environment to soak up their pollution while other responsible businesses are paying the full cost of treatment."

Private funders should be allowed to help pay for the massive upgrades to waste water infrastructure that was needed so councils could cope with the amounts of industrial waste being discharged, he said.

"But the government has been silent on whether they will consider private investment in new regional water corporations, which it intends to establish under the Water Services Bill," Court said.

"ACT will argue strongly for the Bill to be amended to include better waste water management, and to allow private sector investment when the Bill is returned to the House for debate in 2021."

Councils have been pleading with successive governments for the last 18 years to fix a loophole in the law to allow them to issue fines, without success.

The Local Government Act 2002 gave councils the power to issue fines but a drafting error in the law meant the regulations allowing it couldn't be written. While they can prosecute breaches in court, in reality it's never been done because it's too costly.

Minister of local government Nanaia Mahuta wasn't available for an interview, but in a statement agreed there was a lack of regulation and investment in waste water infrastructure.

The new water service regulator, Taumata Arowai, would be looking at the ways waste water treatment was regulated, she said.

However, that new body will not tackle waste water for at least the next two years.

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