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Published: 2007-09-25 00:00:00

A big corporate dairy farmer which blamed its sharemilker for a literal stream of effluent flowing across its Reporoa property has had its appeal against a $35,000 fine tossed out by the High Court.

Justice Lynton Stevens said in his judgment that the penalty imposed on the Crafar family-owned Plateau Farms in the Rotorua District Court was entirely appropriate given the scale of the illegal effluent management during 2004-05.

Besides a thick stream of effluent running into a neighbouring property because of an overflowing storage sump, poor irrigation practices had led to substantial ponding of effluent and large amounts of thick effluent sludge sitting on paddocks. Such practices can lead to ground water and surface waters becoming heavily polluted.

Noting the thickness of effluent build-up on paddocks, Justice Stevens said evidence indicated the Plateau Farms effluent disposal system would have contaminated ground water with nitrate and pathogenic organisms. “I consider that this is serious damage, caused by a considerable abdication of responsibility for the effluent disposal system over a sustained period,” he said.

Plateau Farms argued the $35,000 fine was excessive but Justice Stevens said the case concerned “commercial environmental pollution by conduct involving negligence of a high order”. He also pointed out the maximum fine for the offence and its continuation over nearly a month was $490,000.

Environment Waikato’s complaints and enforcement manager Rob Dragten said: “The High Court’s decision to throw out the appeal further reinforces the strong message to dairy farm owners that this type of pollution is entirely unacceptable.”

The scale of the pollution was discovered by chance just before Christmas in 2004 during a routine helicopter flight by Environment Waikato enforcement officers.

Plateau Farms subsequently pleaded guilty to one representative charge of unlawful discharge of contaminants to land.

The company had largely tried to blame its sharemilker for the illegal acts but both the district and high courts agreed that in this case the owners bore the majority of the responsibility, Mr Dragten said.

“They were aware of the problems, did nothing to fix them, and so bore the majority of the blame. The company showed a high degree of negligence.

“The High Court’s rejection of the appeal backs the view that the buck ultimately stops with the owners, and this is something corporate dairy farmers need to pay close attention to.

“Farm owners need to have systems in place to ensure the effluent systems on their farms and the staff who are using them are complying with the law. Otherwise they can expose themselves to very heavy fines.”