4 May 2016

Waihi Dam breached consent for years

5:34 am on 4 May 2016

A company whose damaged dam poured silt into Wairoa waterways for months over summer had been breaching its resource consent for years, and the enforcer, the Hawkes Bay Regional Council, was aware since 2013.

The privately-owned Waihi Dam has taken months to be fixed.

The privately-owned Waihi dam Photo: RNZ/Kate Gudsell

A sluice gate at Eastland Group's Waihi dam was damaged last September and was not fixed until March, costing the Wairoa District Council more than $100,000 to clean up the area's drinking water.

The Waihi dam consent was issued in 1979, predating the Resource Management Act, and has remained unchanged since some tweaks in 1985.

In 1999 it was transferred to Eastland Network, the electricity arm of Gisborne-based Eastland Group.

As part of the consent, Eastland was required to carry out sediment surveys every two years and an ecological survey every year.

Documents released to RNZ News show that in 2013 the regional council requested copies of both these surveys.

It received one sediment survey, but not until September 2014, and no ecological surveys because Eastland had not carried any out.

The regional council said the company had breached its consent in respect of the surveys, but no penalties were incurred.

Sheena Martin holds a bottle of the dirty, silty water from the Waihi Dam.

Sheena Martin holds a bottle of the dirty, silty water from the Waihi Dam earlier this year. Photo: RNZ/Kate Gudsell

Sheena Martin's farm draws water from the affected waterways and she said the silt had destroyed her whole summer.

She said financially they would never catch up on what they had lost.

Ms Martin was not surprised to learn the consent had been breached and there had been no penalties and said she was disgusted with the whole system.

"There's been hundreds of thousands spent by our group over the years to have that water, and some arrogant company and obviously inefficient regional council set up can just destroy it."

The silt situation has been described as an environmental disaster by many people, including the regional council's chair, Fenton Wilson.

Mr Wilson did not return RNZ's calls.

Wairoa District Council chief executive Fergus Power said the silt had been catastrophic, and ratepayers were picking up the bill because the local council had to clean up drinking water.

The council would be seeking to recover those costs from Eastland.

"There's no reason why the ratepayer should be paying for the consequences of a dam failure of this scale."

Mr Power did not want to put a precise figure on what it had cost the district council, but said it was more than $100,000.

Environmental Defence Society senior policy analyst Marie Brown described the regional council's approach to monitoring and enforcement as 'languid' and suggested a lack of attention from the regional council.

"Particularly when you look at the situation that's then transpired of quite significant sediment discharge into a really important fresh water area.

"It really shows that the cost of monitoring and enforcement, when it's not well done, really do fall to the community ultimately."

Green Party water spokesperson Catherine Delahunty said the situation showed that neither the company or council took their responsibilities seriously.

"The company has been allowed to behave badly with no consequences so both organisations have to be held accountable for what has been an ecological disaster, as the people said, their summer was stolen, their river was full of silt, their pumps are blocked up, and they feel that no one's being held to account and this was before people knew that there has been no proper consent and no proper monitoring."

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little said it made a mockery of the consenting system.

He was concerned Wairoa would be collateral damage once the regional council completed its investigation into the damaged dam and Eastland Group's response to it.

Hawkes Bay Regional Council and Eastland both declined to comment on the breach until the investigation is complete, which is expected to be at the end of this month.

However, Eastland Group said it had been in communication with the regional council during the years it had owned the dam and believed it had met the consent requirements.

Wairoa mayor Craig Little by the Waihi Dam

Wairoa mayor Craig Little by the Waihi Dam. Photo: RNZ / Kate Gudsell

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