Sewage spill fines put spotlight on infrastructure and procedures

Fines totalling $179,000 over a major sewage spill in Bell Block show how important it is for basic community infrastructure to be fully fit for purpose, with operators able to respond efficiently and effectively to any malfunctions, the TRC says.

New Plymouth District Council and its contractor City Care were fined $66,500 and $112,500 respectively in the Environment Court in New Plymouth today. They had been prosecuted by the Taranaki Regional Council over the discharge of an estimated 1500 cubic metres of effluent into the Mangati Stream, Bell Block, in a 10-hour period overnight on 22-23 January 2019.

The spill occurred after a fuse blew at an NPDC sewage pumping station alongside the stream, which was contaminated along the entire 950m reach to the ocean. The discharge resulted in the deaths of a large number of fish, eels and other aquatic species and a significant deterioration in stream health, and left solid waste material on the stream bed and banks. It was also very offensive to tangata whenua values.

It occurred at a time when the waste water network in Bell Block was receiving industrial waste from a chicken processing plant – a procedure that takes place at night to avoid coinciding with peak daytime domestic loads. This industrial waste is particularly high in ammonia and organic material that reduces oxygen levels in freshwater.

NPDC and City Care had pleaded guilty.

“Automatic alarms alerted City Care to the fault and a technician checked the site that night,” says TRC’s Director-Resource Management, Fred McLay. “But the technician did not understand the nature and significance of what was occurring and, with assistance and back-up unavailable, they left the site. So the discharge continued until the next morning.

“There are also wider issues around the adequacy of the infrastructure itself. An incident like this appears to have been simply a matter of time.

“The TRC has a duty to prosecute serious environmental breaches, no matter who is responsible. There must be accountability and deterrence. The size of the fine should encourage the community and its civic leaders to focus on environmental investment priorities. It should also remind operators that they must ensure their contingency plans and procedures are robust.”