24 Feb 2021

Heavy fines handed down for environmental offending

10:53 am on 24 February 2021

A judge had his hands full dealing with ecological miscreants in the Environment Court at New Plymouth yesterday, some of whom should've known better than to find themselves in the dock.

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 at Bell Block, New Plymouth in 2019. Photo: RNZ/ Robin Martin

Among them were the New Plymouth District Council and its water services contractor, CityCare.

They were being sentenced for their part in spilling 1.5 million cubic litres of human effluent into the Mangati Stream in Bell Block - the equivalent of half the volume of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Judge Brian Dwyer said the January 2019 sewage pump station failure, which lasted for more than nine hours, had fatal consequences.

"The discharge was lethal to fish with many dead fish observed in the stream including three at risk species. An estimated 1000-1500 fish were killed."

Representing CityCare, Ben Williams, argued his client and the council were equally culpable.

"This was a pump station which was reliant on a power supply and a back up power supply that failed and no alarms being in place around the power supply failures and the absence of ample storage capacity, so this was a difficult pump station."

Williams reckoned it was not CityCare's responsibility to make sure the infrastructure was up to scratch in the first place.

But Judge Dwyer was not buying it.

He said CityCare's obligations included checking, maintaining and operating the pump station, including responding to alarms.

"It's clear to me that this was a pump station which had limitations, but the fact is that if CityCare had done its job notwithstanding the limitations which were known to CityCare which has been managing it since 2012 the discharge would not have occurred."

Judge Dwyer fined CityCare and the New Plymouth District Council $112,000 and $66,500.

GrainCorp Liquid Terminals also appeared for sentencing over a 60-tonne tallow spill in September 2019 which created a fatberg which blocked a sewage pump station, causing faecal matter readings in the Port Taranaki harbour to reach record levels.

The court heard a valve was left open on a storage tank's sight-glass, a device which allows staff to see how much product is in the vessel, causing it to come apart and spill hot tallow into a bunded area.

Representing GrainCorp, Stephanie De Groot, said from there it had only one place to go.

"The trade waste interceptor ... the default was that it was left open so any runoff or stormwater would be released into the trade waste."

Judge Dwyer said that seemed unusual to him because wouldn't the company want to know what it was releasing into the trade waste before it did so.

The hot tallow solidified in the wastewater system, blocking a pump station causing a subsequent sewage discharge into the Hongihongi Stream.

A 60-tonne tallow spill by Graincorp Liquid Terminals caused a fatberg in the pipes of New Plymouth.

A 60-tonne tallow spill by GrainCorp Liquid Terminals caused a fatberg in the pipes of New Plymouth. Photo: Supplied

Judge Dwyer said flow samples taken in the Port Taranaki harbour at the time were alarming.

"The first sample showed faecal indicator bacteria or FIB levels at the sample site were the highest ever recorded at that sampling location. The second sample taken after the discharge had ceased showed a decrease in FIB levels, but still above any previously recorded levels."

E-coli counts downstream from the discharge were also 300 times higher than upstream.

Judge Dwyer said there were other aggravating factors at play too.

"GrainCorp's failures to provide a warning system in the bund and to have obtained a Trade Waste Discharge Permit belie its claims to having good systems in place. This combination considerably aggravates GrainCorp's culpability for the offending in my opinion."

A contrite GrainCorp general manager, Daniel Calcinai, conceded the trade waste outlet should have been closed.

"Yes so as part of the investigation [into the spill] it was determined that it should have been and now there are practices in place that ensures that it is."

Calcinai said an warning system was also being installed in the bund.

But the company contended it had trade waste discharge permissions via its relationship with Port Taranaki.

Judge Dwyer convicted and fined GrainCorp $84,000.

The Taranaki Regional Council, which took the prosecutions, said the fines sent a strong message that environmental offending would not be tolerated no matter who was responsible.

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