An Environment Court Judge has fined Wallace Corporation Limited $80,000 for objectionable odour from its Waitoa rendering plant – the highest fine for a single charge ever recorded under the Resource Management Act.
The fine results from court action taken by Environment Waikato as a result of 12 breaches of Wallace Corporation's resource consent for air discharge.
Environment Court Judge, C. J. Thompson, sitting in the Auckland District Court, said that Wallace Corporation's breaches of its resource consent meant that neighbours' expectations of being able to enjoy normal outdoor living "was completely disrupted by odours of the most repellent kind” – and he noted that one family cited the odours as a contributing factor in their decision to move away from the area completely.
"Rural environments, as we all know, are certainly not immune from disturbance and noise, odour and that sort of thing - they are not necessarily pristine," he said.
"But at the same time, their inhabitants are undoubtedly entitled to reasonable amenity, and more importantly entitled to an expectation that neighbours - be they industries, other farmers, or whoever - will comply with the terms of consent conditions for the activities being undertaken on land.”
However, in fining Wallace Corporation $80,000 for the 12 incidents of odour discharge which occurred between April and November 2004 at the Wood Road rendering plant, Judge Thompson found that the company had been “careless” in its failure to put in place robust systems for meeting its air discharge requirements - and was therefore in breach of its responsibilities.
Judge Thompson noted that on at least two occasions the offending odour was due to animal material being received at the plant in poor condition.
"That a plant of this kind and this size, and with this length of experience, did not have a contingency plan to deal with a load of material which might arrive in an unexpectedly poor condition is scarcely credible," he said.
The Judge said he was not moved by the company’s claim that there were higher than usual animal casualties over the course of 2004, and that this caused the overloading of the plant's processes.
"This is the company's business and its systems need to be robust enough to cope," the Judge stated.
Wallace Corporation, which pleaded guilty to the charges laid by Environment Waikato, had argued that the rendering plant was an essential industry, which assisted the environment by disposing of dead animals and similar products.
Judge Thompson rejected this line of argument, stating: "The fact that an industry is essential is not, in my view, in any way a factor which might excuse it from breaches of consent conditions.
"Indeed if an industry has high potential for causing environmental damage if things go amiss, there is a corresponding duty to make sure that systems or processes are sufficiently robust to guard against those possibilities."
Judge Thompson was also critical of what he termed the company’s "ill-judged attempt to manipulate the process” by a letter circulated around local residents in an attempt to persuade Environment Waikato not to undertake prosecution action.
The Judge expressed concern that while the company had pleaded guilty, there were “a lot of factors which do not reflect on it quite so well.”
“I accept that there has been an upgrading of processes over relatively recent times,” he said. “But the history of complaints suggests rather strongly that focus somehow is not being put on the problem, or it just means that there has not been enough effort made."
The Judge noted that Wallace Corporation has had four previous convictions for offences under the Resource Management Act - although noting that these previous convictions were not for discharges to air.
Commenting on the record $80,000 fine for an offence of this nature, the chairman of Environment Waikato's Regulatory Committee, Cr Jim Howland, said the fine sends a clear message that breaches of consent conditions are viewed very seriously by the courts.
"The consent conditions clearly require the company to control odour discharges so that they do not cause nuisance to neighbours” he said. “The odour discharged during this period was significantly greater than a nuisance level. The prosecution was only taken after concerted efforts and repeated warnings by Environment Waikato staff to try and get the company to comply.”
Cr Howland noted that since the prosecution, the company has told suppliers that it will be tightening up its dead stock policy.
Previous highest fine for a single charge under the RMA was $55,000, Auckland Regional Council v Nuplex Industries Ltd, Auckland District Court, Judge McElrea, 18 March 2003. Discharge to air of ethyl acrylate for period of one day from emulsion plant in breach of consent conditions.