23 Jul 2021

Distrust between council, community puts Levin landfill deal in the dumps

3:18 pm on 23 July 2021

A deal to shut the controversial Levin rubbish dump, located near one of the country's most polluted lakes, is floundering.

Levin landfill at Hōkio

The Levin landfill at Hōkio keeps operating despite breaches of resource consents. Photo: Supplied / Catalyst Group

The landfill - near the tiny beach settlement of Hōkio - is filling up fast, and plans to expand it has locals wondering if they need to head back to court.

The deal negotiated in 2019 between locals and Horowhenua District Council (HDC) depends on cooperation, in an area where a social impact study recently found "toxically high levels of community mistrust in the council".

Charles Rudd, of the Muaupoko Iwi, said: "I told you so."

He has been a sceptic from the start after decades of fighting to clean up waterways.

However, other locals were hopeful the 2019 deal would shut the dump 12 years early, by 2025.

Hokio Progressive Association veteran Rose Cotter said the community was excited.

"From 2037 to 2025 was an awesome outcome. And that's what we would like to hold them to."

But the council-community closure group set up to cement the deal has been forced to call in a mediator, after "a serious breakdown in the relationship".

Newly released documents show the group has made little progress.

Other reports underscore the extent of breaches of resource consents at the dump; the latest has landed the council with a $1000 fine and an infringement notice.

A lot of the waste comes from neighbouring Kāpiti - where district councillor Jackie Elliott is lamenting that "residents have lost their voice completely on how they want to treat their rubbish".

But council still plans to expand it.

HDC chief executive David Clapperton said it was an "essential" interim measure.

A crisis meeting of the dump closure group called last night ended with: "We'll keep working together on the deal," in a statement.

New tests done for Horizons Regional Council (HRC) have detected ammonia pollution toxic enough to kill sensitive species, in a drain that feeds into Hōkio Stream, which also empties polluted Lake Horowhenua.

"We get the raw end of the stick every time," Cotter said.

"They've made an agreement - please don't screw the people over," she said worried the deal might collapse.

Rudd said it would be best to forget the deal and instead force the HRC to prosecute HDC.

As for seeking an injunction, he warned: "I guarantee ... if they take it to court, they will lose."

Both sides have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal action - through the Environment Court and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in an investigation a decade ago.

The Catalyst Group, which provides a project manager to the dump closure group, said in a recent memo that HRC's investigations of an ammonia-contaminated drain failed to "apply basic investigation techniques".

Bad blood and 'decades of mistrust'

Members of the closure group are not speaking to media, except Clapperton. In 2019, the group said it wanted to be as transparent as possible.

The distrust cut both ways: meeting minutes show Clapperton accused community members of breaching confidentiality.

The bad blood has wide impacts, the recent social impact study found.

"It is hard ... potentially unsafe, for frontline [council] workers to do their jobs," it said.

"They are walking into decades of mistrust."

The study was done for HDC as part of restorative justice work by Wellington consultant Bronwyn Kerr.

"The culture of bullying and misinformation from the council over years has eroded trust to such an extent that ... it's gone.

"I felt there was a real genuine desire from the community to work with the council."

But there was always "a fear" that it would go belly up.

Kerr claims council pulled back on the study when it realised what she was finding out.

"I was under a lot of pressure not to say what I found out from talking to the community and to tidy it up in my report.

"Local iwi and hapū groups were presented to me as difficult or dangerous, and I shouldn't speak to them.

"There was a culture of untruths, withholding of information, and I would say deliberate misinformation from the council."

Horowhenua mayor says decision imminent

Clapperton and Horowhenua Mayor Bernie Wanden did not respond to the claims.

In a statement, Clapperton said the closure group was still cooperating.

Disagreements on serious matters like waste disposal could generally be resolved, he said.

Wanden said: "We're finally getting to - closer to - a decision on its future.

"There will be tensions because we're probably, in their view, not acting as quickly as we should be."

The fate of the dump to be closed by 2025 is up to councillors after looking at a business case assessing economic, environmental and social impacts.

The Hōkio dump closure group is also meant to brief the councillors - but "this exercise is in excess of 12 months overdue", a memo said.

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