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Published: 2007-09-21 00:00:00

A Waikato company which unlawfully buried illegal toxic chemicals in a way that risks them getting into waterways has been found guilty of charges laid by Environment Waikato under the Resource Management Act.

In one of the most significant cases of its type in New Zealand, Waitoa-based Wallace Corporation Ltd and two of its senior employees were found guilty of discharging polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) by burying them under a new building being constructed at the company’s property. The reserved decision of Environment Judge Fred McElrea was released late last week after hearings in Morrinsville and Auckland earlier this year. The charges against Wallace Corporation, rendering plant manager Neville Cross and electrical manager Barry Dew were laid under section 15(1)(d) of the RMA.

Wallace Corporation’s being found guilty of this charge in the Auckland District Court follows the company having previously been found guilty of a range of other unrelated environmental offences between 1997 and 2004.

Exposure to PCBs is implicated in causing cancer and their use is heavily restricted in New Zealand. They cannot be legally disposed of in New Zealand, and must be sent overseas for disposal.

Environment Waikato said that, since the court decision, the company has proposed removing a section of the building’s floor in an attempt to locate the buried PCBs and remove them.

“The experts have told us it is unlikely that PCBs will have got into groundwater or waterways at this stage because they do not easily dissolve in water” said Environment Waikato’s complaints and enforcement manager Rob Dragten.

“However, there is a longer term concern they may get into waterways, which means it is important to try and locate the contamination and have it disposed of properly.

“If we can’t locate the actual PCBs and remove them, we would apply for an enforcement order to set up a long-term monitoring regime in nearby waterways to alert us quickly to any signs of seepage and develop a plan to ensure no people, stock or wildlife are harmed.”

Mr Dragten said Environment Waikato was appalled by the company’s dumping of the PCBs contained in old electrical capacitors, some of which were leaking. The dumping was only uncovered when a union with members at Wallace Corporation approached the regional council.

Environment Waikato was alerted to documents in June 2005 which suggested the disused electrical capacitors containing PCBs had been buried at the Wallace Corporation site some years earlier. An investigation followed, with charges being laid in December 2005. A 12-day defended hearing was heard in February and May of this year.

The Wallace Corporation site contains an abattoir, a rendering plant, a tannery, a leather processing facility and a waste treatment system.

The court found that Mr Dew had told a worker to bury the capacitors in an area prepared for a new building. The worker refused to do so but a second worker was then told to bury them. The worker did as he was directed, and the concrete floor of the new building was then poured on top of the site.

Ironically, the company later disposed of other PCB-containing capacitors lawfully.

Mr Dragten said that Wallace Corporation and the other defendants denied the charges in court.

“We are extremely disappointed at the approach taken by the defendants during our investigation, and subsequent prosecution. The defendants all continued to deny the PCB was buried, despite the company’s own documentation confirming the burial, and the evidence of our witnesses. This has meant a lot of time and money has been spent on the court process to prove the PCB was there, which has only delayed cleaning up the contamination.

“We hope these convictions – and whatever sentence the court imposes – will send a clear signal to potential polluters in the Waikato. It is not acceptable to use the environment as a dumping ground for industrial waste, especially waste as toxic as PCB.”

Wallace Corporation has previously pleaded guilty to spilling rendering plant liquid waste to water in April 1997. It also pleaded guilty to over application of treated effluent on to irrigation properties during the 2000 season. Last year, the company ended up being fined $47,000 after pleading guilty to discharging objectionable odours to air during 2004.

Environment Waikato’s strict stance on the company is paying off. Since the prosecution over objectionable odours, compliance on site appears to have improved.

“The level of compliance by Wallace Corporation with its resource consents has greatly improved over the last 18 months” said David Stagg, Environment Waikato’s compliance manager. “The level of odour has diminished significantly to the level that we now get few odour complaints. Nearby residents report a huge improvement, which is a great outcome for that community.”

Mr Stagg said that a new management structure at the company and the expertise employed to manage environmental issues seems to have paid dividends. Environment Waikato and Wallace Corporation are working cooperatively to resolve outstanding compliance issues.

Mr Stagg is hopeful that enforcement will be a thing of the past for the company and all parties can now focus on safeguarding the environment.