A forestry company in charge of a joint-venture plantation with the district council says damage to the city's pipeline during Cyclone Gabrielle was unavoidable because of the nature of the storm.
Juken New Zealand (JNL) holds the consent for the district council's joint-venture forest at Waingake - land which the city's main water pipeline runs through.
During the cyclone, slash and whole trees played a significant role in damaging the 40km connection between the Waingake treatment plant and the city.
Gisborne has been in a water crisis for the past month as a result of multiple breaks to the pipeline, and restrictions are still in place for both industry and residents.
The council said an investigation into the source of the debris was ongoing, and it would not provide further information until it was completed.
In response to questions from Local Democracy Reporting, JNL executive manager Dave Hilliard said the cause of the pipeline failure was an "unprecedented storm" which tore both vegetation from hillsides and soil structures off the hills.
Hilliard said 12 months of unseasonal rainfall in Gisborne's surrounding hills had breached defences against erosion and compromised the processes put in place by both his organisation and the council to protect the pipeline.
The section of forest above the pipe was harvested in 2020 and handed back to the council in June 2021, he said.
"While there may be some slipping and discharge out of this specific area, it is understood the majority of this debris would have been caught up in the standing trees deliberately left below the harvest area and the pipeline.
"No current harvesting contributed to the water pipeline damage from JNL operations."
Other forestry companies not in joint-venture with the council were also operating in the area, he said, and there appeared to be some opening-up of old slip faces plus new mid-slope failures on their land.
Following the cyclone, council chief executive Nedine Thatcher Swann confirmed the mobilisation of both whole trees and harvest waste logs played a "critical factor" in damaging the pipe, but would not say how much of the damage was caused by waste from the joint-venture forest until an investigation was undertaken.
That investigation was in its early stages, Thatcher Swann said, and the council would not comment on either the source of the debris or potential enforcement action until it was concluded.
The land at Waingake was purchased by the council in 1991 from Maraetaha Incorporated, with the council establishing a pine plantation on the site shortly after.
Staged harvesting of those trees began in 2018, with the council committing to transform 1200ha back to native forest in a move aimed at securing the pipeline.
Partnership not smooth sailing
JNL's history with the site dates back to 1993 when it took over management in joint-venture with the council.
The company's relationship with the council has not always been smooth sailing, however.
In November 2019, the council took successful legal action against JNL for breaching the Resource Management Act at Waituna Forest, south of Waingake, and was awarded $152,000 by the Environment Court.
The company pleaded guilty to discharging slash logging debris, waste logging material and sediment that later entered tributaries of Gisborne's Mangapoike River.
But the council also received a stern word from the court, for failing to monitor the resource consent it had issued to JNL.
Court documents reveal that over a five or six-year period, the council did not undertake any inspections of the forest to ensure the company was complying with the consent it had been issued, and its failure to do so was labelled "reprehensible and irresponsible" by Environment Court Judge Brian Dwyer.
Thatcher Swann said the council had significantly increased its monitoring and compliance roles since 2018, and enforcement officers had inspected the Waingake plantation (Pamoa Forest) 15 times in the past five years.
The most recent inspection was made on 5 January, just prior to Cyclone Hale.
Thatcher Swann said the criteria it used to select a forestry partner included relevant management expertise, an assurance of processing locally as much as was practicable, and a commitment to the Gisborne region.
JNL is owned by Japanese parent company Wood One Co Ltd, and has a listed value of $408 million, according to its 2022 annual report.
In the 2019 court ruling, Judge Dwyer described the company as having "massive forest interests in New Zealand".
It has 40,000ha of predominantly radiata pine plantation forest across Wairarapa and East Coast.
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