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SWDC’s million-dollar wastewater problem: Is legal action possible?


Emily Ireland
[email protected]

Unfunded wastewater projects could open South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] up to prosecution.

Consenting authority Greater Wellington Regional Council has issued several “please explain” letters to SWDC over the past year because of non-compliance at its four wastewater treatment plants.

Although a total of $5.3 million in capital expenditure is planned for South Wairarapa’s water infrastructure this financial year, the proposed programme of work does not include wastewater treatment plant compliance for Martinborough, Greytown, or Lake Ferry.

These plants, according to chief executive Harry Wilson, “have never been compliant”.

But with regulation and consenting standards rising across three waters infrastructure, Wellington Water has cautioned SWDC that exclusions of key projects from the programme could open the council up to prosecution and other risks.

Greater Wellington Regional Council environment manager Al Cross said compliance with consent helped prevent negative environmental consequences.

“Greater Wellington works closely with Wellington Water and the Wairarapa councils with wastewater treatment plants to ensure operational compliance to this end, applying a spectrum of techniques from advice through to prosecution if required.”

SWDC’s proposed water work programme was discussed recently at its Assets and Services Committee.

At the meeting, SWDC’s partnerships and operations manager Stefan Corbett said there was some ability for the council and WW to adjust the programme.

His main concerns were about non-compliance at Greytown and Martinborough’s wastewater treatment plants, increased regulation standards for drinking water plants, the Tauherenikau pipe replacement, and main renewals in Featherston.

“We will be working with Wellington Water on any prioritisation of the 2023-24 budget that might be required to ensure our highest priority items are funded.”

In a report to SWDC, WW said the council’s budget was “limited” compared to the investment needed.

The proposed capital expenditure programme for this financial year included work on Featherston’s Wastewater Treatment Plant, drinking water compliance projects, reactive renewals, and modelling.

Not included this year were other wastewater treatment compliance works at Martinborough, Greytown, and Lake Ferry, the Tauherenikau pipeline long-term solution renewal, smart meter works, planned network renewals, growth, level of service improvements, Waiohine Water Treatment Plant health and safety upgrades, and work on the Donald St Pump Station.

South Wairarapa Mayor Alex Beijen said the risks were “very difficult to hear” because SWDC had accepted budgets prescribed by WW when the Long-Term Plan was approved last year.

WW chief executive Colin Crampton said Wellington Water had been “less than explicit” in the past about the
risks councils were carrying.

“In the last year, we have been very clear to people in an explicit way what those risks are,” Crampton said.

“Having the problems develop even later, Alex, rather than telling you now, would be even worse.”

Beijen said he got “frustrated” when the council had “budgeted accordingly, and it all changed beneath our feet”.

Crampton said the council’s long-term priority was focusing on safe drinking water, which was reflected in WW’s proposed strategy.

“If you are budget constrained, then it is about making sure you are aware of the risks you are carrying on wastewater treatment.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t work as hard as possible to try to mitigate them for you, but it is important to know.”

Beijen replied: “You understand my frustration that 12 months ago we thought we weren’t budget-constrained, we were giving you everything you were asking for”.

Crampton replied: “It’s a shame we didn’t have that grown-up chat at the time, isn’t it, so I take that on the chin, Alex”.
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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