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Published: 2002-06-04 00:00:00

Environment Waikato’s Regulatory Committee has recommended not prosecuting the NZMP Hautapu factory for contaminating the Waikato River in April.

In a report to the Regulatory Committee, staff said the company had a defence under the Resource Management Act, because the event could not have been foreseen and it took immediate action to rectify the contamination once it was discovered.

Environment Waikato investigated the cause of very high bacterial levels downstream from Cambridge found in early April, and also identified by Community Health.

The site was checked on April 23 and results showed very high levels of E. Coli. Once the company was told about the problem the discharge was stopped, and the company disinfected the wastewater storage silo and pipeline, meanwhile irrigating the wastewater to land. The waste was low strength wastewater which is consented to be discharged to the river, while other waste streams are disposed of or irrigated.

Resource Officer Barry Campbell said the actions taken by the company in stopping the discharge and investigating the causes of the silo infection reflected its concern. It had also co-operated fully with the investigation and other NZMP sites had begun testing their wastewater discharges as a precaution.

During the consent process there was no indication that the waste contained any micro organisms which could be a health risk, no limits were imposed and no monitoring required. The site was taken by surprise by the event and could not have known that contamination could occur. It would be very difficult to prove a case in court, he said.

“Although the Waikato River bacterial contamination this summer has been of great concern to the public, the evidence at present is that the high levels of faecal coliforms in the NZMP Hautapu discharge probably do not pose a significant health risk. There was no evidence that the wastewater contained infectious pathogens normally associated with sewage.

“The majority of these bugs are harmless to humans, even in large numbers.”

The company had offered to monitor the wastewater silo and pipeline daily, reducing to monthly once reliable sanitising systems are in place. The company had a high compliance record and there was no reason to consider the incident as symptomatic of poor site management, he said.

NZMP Group General Manager for manufacturing, Max Parkin, said the company was “surprised and embarrassed” by the findings. The company had acted immediately to stop the discharge and would ensure systems were in place to avoid it happening again. He said NZMP would expect and welcome the Council providing an account for the considerable costs involved.

Chairman Jim Howland said it was important that a clear public statement be made on the actions taken so people clearly understood the reasons not to proceed with legal action.

Cr David Peart said there was a perception that the Council treated large companies better than small operations, but this was “far from the truth”.

“We bend over backwards trying to get people to make changes and it is with great regret that we take any legal action. Such action is always related to a long history of non-compliance. This is a most unusual situation and anyone in the same unusual situation would be treated in the same way.”