Bulldozing through environmental laws

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 6 December 2023

Week after week the prosecutions are mounting up all over the country from building sites where illegal work is destroying the environment. 

Unstabilised earthworks in a housing project in Porirua on 18 June 2020.

Unstabilised earthworks in a housing project in Porirua on 18 June 2020. Photo: Supplied by Greater Wellington Te Pane Matua Taiao

A contractor fined for tipping truckloads of soil and rubbish, damaging native trees and causing slips on Auckland's North Shore. 

He's a repeat offender. 

A prosecution for discharging concrete into a creek, killing eels - also on the North Shore. 

Dairy effluent overflowing into a stream in the Bay of Plenty. 

The owners of several kiwifruit orchards convicted for illegally taking millions and millions of litres of water for irrigation. 

All recent cases, all pretty much under the radar, and all at a time when nature is already doing enough to wreck the environment.

Today on The Detail, the Herald's property editor Anne Gibson talks to Sharon Brettkelly about the myriad of cases she's been digging up where land owners are bulldozing through regulations that in some cases, they just don't think apply to them. 

Her latest story is about an Auckland District Court case involving a Silverdale earthworks company which was doing work at a residential property in Albany, where there's a lot of native bush deemed worthy of protection from tree cutting, clearing, or any environmental damage. 

Tao Ma was convicted and fined $34,000 for work he and his former company Mender Construction of Silverdale carried out in 2021 - 21 without consent. 

"He told a council officer that he basically makes money from disposing of soil and fill, so he tips that on properties," she says. 

"What contractors like this do is they go to construction sites, they win a contract - Mender Construction says it's a reliable aggregate supplier and clean fill tip yard."  

But instead of paying a waste disposal company about $200 a truckload to dump, he illegally dumped material which included asbestos on a private site in Albany Heights, next door to a reserve, that he'd been clearing. 

He had consent to do some works on that site ... but he took out about 100 trees and the topsoil with it. 

"What happens then is the clay is exposed, and then there was some quite severe weather, and the clay started to slip and move. It was a big wide area of clay that came off that property, down a hill, and it was about 100 metres wide and went through a boundary fence."

The land owner told the council she had asked him to stop the work, but he'd carried on. 

That was bad enough. But then a council officer turned up to find Ma on a digger at the site he lied about who he was - because he'd already been convicted in the Environment Court three years previously of similar offences.  

The deception was an aggravating feature during sentencing. 

Gibson points out that many of the sites where illegal works are happening are out of public view, and it's only when neighbours are affected, and complain, that word reaches the ears of the council.  

"To see that occurring is deeply depressing," she says. 

Auckland Council has clamped down on erosion-related activity for the last four years, and has two full time officers visiting sites. 

The council says with around 13,500 small sites developed a year across the city, they make up the bulk of land-disturbing activity, and the combined pollution effect of catchments downstream can be dramatic and expensive. 

Statistics from 2020 show 51 percent of residential construction sites are still lacking appropriate erosion control - but that's an improvement on previous years when the figure was 90 percent. 

* If you're in Auckland and see sediment leaving a site and going into a stormwater drain or stream, call 09 301 0101 to get someone to deal with it. 

* And an apology - in our podcast Anne Gibson mentions an environmental project and talks about Godwits flying from Siberia - the birds actually migrate to and from Alaska, which was confirmed when NZ Miranda godwit E7 proved it in 2007.

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