New Zealand's Whangamata Bar Just Got Cleaner

Major gains in attempts to clean up the Whangamata Harbour have been achieved by Clean Water Whangamata (CWW) and Surfbreak Protection Society (SPS).

The two groups are delighted with the outcome of the Whangamata wastewater upgrade case, recently signed off by the Environment Court following mediation which took into account many of their submission points on a sewage treatment upgrade proposal CWW and SPS still considered flawed.

CWW and surfers have battled to clean up the harbour since 1998 when a number of surfers suffered from bacteria related problems and community members noticed a general deterioration of the harbour.

A survey released by the Thames Coromandel District Council (TCDC) advised the existing treatment pond was leaking up to 30,000 litres of sewage daily. This, along with literally thousands of other resource consent breaches, prompted action from the two allied groups.

CWW and SPS, along with numerous other community members, made submissions to the Waikato Regional Council on the wastewater upgrade proposal. When the consent was approved, it was still considered unsatisfactory by many, and SPS joined CWW in an Environment Court appeal.

“CWW and SPS and their 274 parties were reluctant to enter this legal process, but the council would not discuss the critical issues or give any information before the consent process was upon us,” says CWW spokesperson Rosemary Segedin.

“Therefore we were forced into the court process, with associated costs for lawyers and expert witnesses”. Fortunately, the case was resolved by mediation under the Environment Court’s authority before going to the courtroom.

“One key factor that meant we could mediate with the council, rather than being forced into court, was convincing the consultants the plant design specifications were underestimated,” says Rosemary Segedin. As a result, a Memorandum of Understanding and a consent order, which included 26 new and/or altered resource consent conditions, were agreed to by the TCDC and Waikato Regional Council..

Some of the substantial gains achieved were:

- Increasing the capacity of the primary treatment by more than 50%

- Spray heads were moved further away from residential properties

- Tightening the resource consent so that the council has to comply more stringently

- A geo-technical investigation on the existing leaking pond with an obligation to remedy any problems

- Increasing the frequency of stream monitoring in key times, allowing quicker identification of problems

- Monitoring and upgrading the pump stations, which should reduce the frequency of sewage spills in town

- Ensuring that tree health will be monitored, to reduce the risk of ratepayers having to pay compensation to the foresters

- Ensuring that extra retention ponds and all denitrification beds are put in during the initial construction period, and not just some time in the future

- Decreasing the rate of irrigation to forestry trees, changing the decision process of when to allow irrigation, and adding of riparian planting, which will all substantially reduce the chance of overland or underground flow and hence harbour contamination

“One of our greatest fears after studying the original proposal was the risk of bugs and viruses in the air for residential properties out around SH25 adjacent to the Tairua Forest” says SPS spokesperson Paul Shanks. “These residents (close to spray Zone 7) supported CWW and SPS on all the issues.

As a result, their buffer zone went from 30 metres to 100 metres and finally to about 400 metres – which is over a ridge. With the increased plant capacity, the sprayed effluent would be of a high standard, which further decreases the risk. “We are very grateful for the support and help from Ngati Whanaunga, the Zone 7 residents and the many other community members who volunteered their time and gave donations to preserve our harbour,” says Paul Shanks.

A new community liaison group, endorsed by the Environment Court, has been set up for the whole term of the consent. One of the group’s first jobs will be deciding if the leaking pond can be safely utilised following a detailed geo-technical report, now required by the resource consent.

“This is why we were disappointed with the council report to the Whangamata Community Board on the June 6, which incorrectly stated that the remnant of the pond would remain unlined,” says Rosemary Segedin.

“We have built up a good relationship with the council during the latter mediation meetings, hence we expected more accurate reporting of the 26 substantial changes to the resource consent that will together give a superior outcome for the community and the environment.”

The cost to the community is insignificant compared with the environmental benefits, and the residents of the 45 properties opposite Zone 7 are relieved that their health will not be compromised and their properties won’t dramatically devalue as recently predicted, when treated effluent was to be sprayed so close to their homes.

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