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Published: 2007-10-05 00:00:00

Waharoa dairy processor Open Country Cheese was yesterday fined a total of $55,000 in the Hamilton District Court after pleading guilty to 11 charges laid by Environment Waikato.

In 2003, the regional council had granted resource consent to Open Country to discharge up to 500 cubic metres per day of treated cheese factory wastewater to land, and to discharge associated contaminants, including odour, into the air. The wastewater was allowed to be sprayed on to pasture at a dairy farm at Waharoa by a traveling irrigator device.

Environment Waikato said Open Country had commissioned a whey powder plant in August 2006, significantly increasing the volume and strength of wastewater produced at the factory and that the company had not upgraded its wastewater processing facilities to cope.

On two occasions in August last year, the company discharged excess wastewater on to land, and on a third occasion the traveling irrigator stopped moving, meaning that the wastewater ponded and then flowed on to a neighbouring farm and into the Waihekau Stream.

Analysis of company records showed that on a total of 46 days between 1 August and 28 December last year, the company over-applied wastewater to land, and despite the frequent over-application the company failed to take steps to address this, an Environment Waikato summary of facts said.

Also, a wastewater pond at the plant had been overloaded and started generating a “significant objectionable odour”. The council had received numerous complaints from Waharoa residents about the smell entering their homes and businesses.

On 20 October 2006, after a complaint, a council staff member drove to Waharoa and found a highly unpleasant smell in the area for the entire 20 minutes he was there – he determined the smell was coming from Open Country’s factory site.

On a visit to the factory several days later, the staff member detected a very putrid and rotten smell which he traced to the wastewater pond. Then in November 2006, there were further complaints about objectionable odour, which were investigated by the council.

A number of other charges related to wastewater and other discharges to a second farm, purchased in August last year to give the company more land to irrigate with wastewater.

In late October 2006, some 250,000 litres of milk spoiled and the company illegally dumped it in a big pit dug by Open Country on the second farm. The dumped milk rotted and later caused a significant smell.

Also, the company illegally stored wastewater in a dairy effluent pond at the second farm, and discharged wastewater on to this land without a resource consent.

During a December site inspection of the factory by the council, salt whey waste product and wastewater were found to be flowing into drains and discharging into the Waitoa River in contravention of the Resource Management Act.

The summary of facts said Open Country Cheese chief executive Alan Walters had acknowledged a range of offences, which he attributed to the rapid expansion of the factory and the amount of milk being processed.

He had said the dumping of the milk occurred because the company had limited options over a long weekend and was under pressure to keep taking milk from suppliers. “He acknowledged that they did not have a contingency plan in place to deal with such an incident adequately,” the summary said.

Environment Waikato’s complaints and enforcement manager Rob Dragten said that since last year’s offending the company had upgraded its wastewater system.

“To the company’s credit, there have been no wastewater consent breaches since then. We did receive some objectionable odour complaints about a month ago. The smell was traced to the wastewater system and the company has since sorted things out.

“Open Country has clearly taken matters seriously and we look forward to a continued cooperative relationship with the company in the future,” Mr Dragten said.

“But this case shows how important it is for people to plan properly for when they are expanding their operations. Developments simply shouldn’t go ahead unless waste handling systems can cope.”