9 Mar 2023

Cyclone Gabrielle: Prosecutors widen investigations into forestry slash

5:40 pm on 9 March 2023

By Ric Stevens, Open Justice Reporter of NZ Herald

Forestry slash in the river seen during a flight over Gisborne after Cyclone Gabrielle.

Forestry slash chokes a Gisborne river after Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: East Coast MP Kiritapu Allan

Gisborne council has already successfully prosecuted five forestry companies for slash damage in storms. Now it is extending its investigations in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle.

The damage caused by slash or woody debris - along with soil and rocks washed away from clear-felled and erosion-prone hillsides - has become a hot topic following the February cyclone.

Almost 12,000 people have signed an online petition calling for a review of land use in the Gisborne Tai Rāwhiti region, which has a population of about 50,000.

In a series of extreme weather events, most recently Cyclone Gabrielle, avalanches of wood originating on forestry sites swept away bridges and choked and dammed rivers, leading to worse flooding.

The government has ordered a two-month ministerial inquiry into the issue, but the Gisborne District Council has already had success in prosecuting forestry companies for breaches of the Resource Management Act (RMA) in their work practices.

So far the council has extracted more than $1.3 million in fines and reparation from five foresters following slash damage from storms that swept over the area on Queen's Birthday Weekend and the following weeks in June 2018.

It has been estimated that 400,000 cubic metres of slash washed down hills after that event, clogging rivers and causing serious environmental harm and damage to properties.

In January this year, the council launched another investigation into possible RMA breaches by forestry companies following Cyclone Hale, which battered the region on 10 and 11 January, and led once again to flooding along slash-laden rivers.

Two weeks later, a child was killed on Gisborne's Waikanae beach while playing in slash debris.

Produce - including apples, onions, pumpkin and pineapple - rotting at Napier Beach's shore on 20 February, 2023.

Slash has made its way to beaches. Photo: RNZ / Soumya Bhamidipati

The Cyclone Hale investigation was interrupted by Cyclone Gabrielle, but has now resumed, council Compliance Monitoring and Enforcement Manager Gary McKenzie said in an email to NZME.

"The investigation will be extended to include possible breaches associated with Cyclone Gabrielle," he said.

"The council investigation following these recent storm events is obviously still at a very early stage, but in any case, we won't be providing any details about the investigation while it is still underway."

The council's most recent successful prosecution was of the forestry company Ernslaw One Limited, which was fined $225,000 in December last year for RMA breaches that led to slash and debris being washed out of the hills in the Uawa Forest and down rivers toward Tolaga Bay on the coast.

Ernslaw was also ordered to pay $130,000 in emotional harm reparation to people who had been affected by its actions.

Council chief executive Nedine Thatcher Swann said she wanted the Ernslaw One fine to be seen as a deterrent.

"Any company that pollutes our region will be prosecuted," Swann said.

"Our hill country is steep and erosion-prone. It must be planted and harvested with care to ensure sustainable management of our natural and physical resources," she said.

"Storms of this intensity are becoming more frequent due to climate change. As a council we must make sure best practice is being followed in forestry to protect our environment, people and property."

Other companies successfully prosecuted by the Gisborne council were:

  • Aratu Forests Ltd (formerly Hikurangi Forest Farms Ltd), fined $379,500 with $125,000 to be paid in reparations;
  • Juken NZ Limited, fined $152,000;
  • DNS Forest Products 2009 Ltd, fined $124,700 with $6500 reparations;
  • PF Olsen Limited, fined $198,000.

Ninety percent of the fines have been paid to the council.

In the Aratu Forests Ltd case, Judge Brian Dwyer noted the flow of debris following the Queen's Birthday Weekend storm in 2018 damaged farms and houses and blocked bridges and roads in the Tolaga Bay area.

One family had to be rescued by helicopter from the roof of their house due to the "wall of forestry debris" surrounding it.

Meanwhile, wood debris is also being cleared from Hawke's Bay beaches currently following Cyclone Gabrielle, but much of this does not seem to have come from forestry sites.

A spokesman for Hawke's Bay Regional Council said slash from forestry sites had been a "very minor problem" in the wider Hawke's Bay disaster.

* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.

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