Open Country Dairy seeks a 35-year consent to discharge wastewater year-round to the Waitoa River. Photo: Farah Hancock

Sewage fungus, bad smells and insinuations of ignored good faith clauses swirl in a dairy processing wastewater consent application heard in Hamilton last week

New Zealand’s second largest dairy processor wants to discharge wastewater into the polluted Waitoa River, including during summer when flows are low.

Open Country Dairy’s application for a resource consent seeks permission to more than double the amount of wastewater it discharges a day into the Waitoa River from its Waharoa factory near Matamata.

Currently it’s only allowed to discharge wastewater during winter, and only when the river has a certain level of flow. Now it wants to discharge all year round, even when the already degraded river is in low flow. 

Waikato Regional Council evidence submitted at last week’s consent hearing recommended the application be declined as potential adverse environmental effects were “more than minor”.

Open Country Dairy says a new wastewater treatment facility it’s building will mean the water it discharges will be cleaner than the water presently in the river. Even with the increased discharge volume, it says less nutrients will be carried by the river into the Firth of Thames when calculated over the course of a year than what has occurred during the current consent period.

It’s based this on its current consent and included nutrients discharged unlawfully in its calculations.

The company has been responsible for several prior breaches of consent conditions, emitting what was described as a stench that caused vomiting and headaches and discharges into the river causing sewage fungus to grow.

Last year the company, which is owned by fishing giant Talley’s, received a record fine from the Waikato Regional Council of $221,250.

At the time Waikato Regional Council staff pointed out it was “the fifth prosecution of this company, or its predecessor, relating to unlawful discharges into the environment”.

The company has asked for a consent term of 35 years, the longest term available.

The Waitoa River at the point of discharge during low flow. The red pipe is the discharge pipe. Photo: Evidence submitted on behalf of WRC 

Winter versus summer

In a nutshell, the company seeks to put more, but cleaner wastewater into the Waitoa River. A sticking point is when it wants to do this. 

The company currently has resource consent to discharge 1200 cubic metres of wastewater a day from June to October and only when the Waitoa River’s flow is greater than 1.5 cubic metres per second.

It’s applying to increase the wastewater discharged into the Waitoa River to a maximum of 3030 cubic metres a day from January to June and 3560 cubic metres from July to December regardless of the river flow levels.

Even though the wastewater is treated, it will still contain nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Adding nutrients in summer when flows are low raises the potential of issues. These are less likely to occur in winter when more water is flowing through the river.

Summer discharge is something even the water quality expert submitting on behalf of the dairy company noted as unusual, saying, “In my experience, dairy factory discharge permits have limits on activities during low flows to provide a measure of protection to the receiving aquatic ecosystems”.

During summer months, Open Country Dairy used to discharge wastewater to land. In the application, the company says this is no longer a viable option. Currently it provides wastewater to 350 hectares of land. It says it needs access to 600 hectares to cope with the current output, with more needed if the plant expands. 

The application says relying on third parties for access to land is a considerable risk and also rules out the purchase of land.

“OCD have therefore determined that a discharge of highly treated wastewater to the Waitoa River is the only viable option …”

The Waitoa River, described as “severely degraded”, leads into the Firth of Thames. Downstream from the river are two internationally significant Ramsar wetland sites. 

There’s concern the ecosystem is on the tipping point of collapse. Botulism outbreaks during the summer caused by drought, high water temperatures, closed floodgates and poor water quality killed thousands of birds on the Hauraki Plains over summer. Eels, a species known for hardiness, also perished as a result of a lack of oxygen in water full of nutrients. Threatened shorebirds died due to toxic algal blooms.

A decomposing duck surrounded by dead eels. 3500 dead birds were collected during the past summer’s avian botulism outbreak. Photo: Supplied

The wastewater will contain the same nutrients already wreaking havoc on the waterways in the Hauraki Plains.

The current consent allows for the factory to discharge wastewater containing up to 60kg per day nitrogen and 18kg per day phosphorus during winter when the flow isn’t low.

Open Country Dairy is seeking permission to discharge up to 45.5kg of total nitrogen per day from January to April and 53.4kg from July to December. For phosphorus, the numbers drop to 9.90kg maximum per day from January to April and 10.7 kg from July to December.

In evidence submitted on behalf of Open Country Dairy, Nathaniel Wilson says: “Nutrient increases in summer will not breach key ecotoxicological triggers, and far-field effects will be minor. Depending on circumstances, increases in near-field nutrient concentrations could lead to enhanced nuisance plant and periphyton growth.”

He suggests riparian planting to increase shade will be needed to mitigate this.

Fish & Game’s gamebird manager for the Auckland and Waikato region David Klee’s submission says there is an “uncomfortable level of uncertainty regarding the actual effects” of the application.

“This type of application, seeking a year-round discharge with no summertime restrictions, is extremely rare. I cannot recall ever assessing an application that has requested such large increases to instream concentrations during low flow conditions.”

The assessment of effects used the current consent as a starting point to measure effects against – a consent only meant for winter. He disagrees the proposed changes will mean an improvement to the river water quality.

“The current application seeks a new summer discharge that was never evaluated under the previous consent and therefore previous consent limits are not an applicable reference point.”

He says planting suggested as a mitigation measure “should at best be considered a symbolic gesture of environmental compensation”.

“If planting is to be relied upon to mitigate adverse effects, it needs to be quantifiable and commensurate. In this instance, given the potential large increases in nutrient concentrations and loads relating to the new summer discharge that will extend a significant distance downstream, I do not consider mitigation planting a viable technique to address all the identified adverse effects.”

Forest & Bird, which did not submit to the hearing, is also concerned at the application, with Central North Island regional manager Rebecca Stirnemann saying it’s a risk. 

“Allowing this to occur in summer is particularly risky because of the conditions downstream.”

She said there were 40,000 migratory birds that rely on the Firth of Thames, including rare and uncommon species.

Death by 1000 discharge consents

In evidence submitted on behalf of Open Country Dairy, Nathaniel Wilson estimates a “0.5 percent” increase in the load of nitrogen entering the Firth in November “will not cause any discernible effects”. 

Waikato Regional Council’s water scientist Bill Vant says this is the wrong way to look at the situation:

“… the dairy factory discharge is just one of more than a thousand separate sources of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Firth, and that it is the cumulative effect of these that is of concern … because there are so many individual sources, any one of them on its own will necessarily only have a small effect on the total.”

The question he thinks should be asked is: “Are the cumulative effects of all the sources of N and P sustainable, and if not, what does this mean for the management of individual sources?’”

His says the application “carries a risk of exacerbating the existing adverse effects on the ecosystem of the Firth of Thames”.

He also notes Wilson suggested his exclusion of the nutrients discharged illegally from his calculations was “inappropriate”. In his submission, Vant defends his stance:

“I consider that including the loads from non-compliant periods would have biased the calculation of the current loads, thereby overestimating the true values.”

Other evidence was submitted to the hearing on behalf of the Waikato Regional Council by Beca planner Craig Inskeep, who summed up the evidence collated by numerous council experts. His recommendation was the application be declined as the effects would be more than minor:

“The overall conclusions are that the assimilation of the nutrient and contaminant load into the receiving environment, during the summer periods of low river flows, is more difficult, and the level of effects are likely to result in adverse effects during the summer period.”

Bad faith?

The consent application came as a surprise to Fish & Game, which had a memorandum of understanding with Open Country Dairy. 

The organisation has a role under the Conservation Act to improve and maintain sports fish and game and to advocate for related habitats.

Fish & Game had opposed a consent application the company made in 2016. A deal was made & Fish and Game withdrew its opposition to the consent and signed a MOU with the company. 

The signed memorandum’s stated purpose was for Fish & Game to support a short-term three-year consent renewal while it worked with the Open Country Dairy to come up with an application for a longer-term consent. 

The intent was for the longer-term consent for contaminants entering the Waitoa River to be “substantially reduced” from the recent levels.

Open Country Dairy’s application blindsided Fish & Game. Despite a good faith clause and numerous other clauses the dairy company agreed to, the requested output levels are higher than they were when Fish & Game signed the MOU. Newsroom has approached Open Country Dairy for comment, but has not received a response.

“It was clearly understood at the time the MOU was signed what both parties expected from it,” Auckland/Waikato Fish & Game CEO Ben Wilson told the hearing. “I think Open Country Dairy have deviated away from it.”

He said the application flew in the face of the objectives and policies in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, the Waikato Regional Policy Statement and Plan and the Hauraki Gulf Marine Parks Act.

“We’re extensively involved in point source discharge applications throughout the Waikato region. This is the first time we can remember one going backwards.”

A hīnaki laying idle

Judith Hattie represented her whānau at the consent hearing, sharing her story of a childhood full of meals from the Waitoa River. 

She was born in the area, but moved to Auckland as a child. Her grandmother would send food parcels with relatives travelling to Auckland. As well as pig there were eels, watercress and kānga pirau, a fermented corn dish made by submerging cobs of corn in running stream water for several days. Eel from the area were known to be particularly fat and tasty.

“We were still connected to our land, our people and traditions, through kai.”

Now the river is so polluted it’s not recommended for contact recreation.

“Over the years the stories have diminished. We go to a lot of hui and very rarely see eel on the table, we never see kānga pirau now. There are no stories to tell our mokopuna. There is no evidence to say ‘taste this, it’s eel from the river’.”

When Hattie moved back to the area she was given a traditional Māori eel trap, a hīnaki. It sits unused in her garage. 

She asked for the consent application to be declined.

“Open Country are stakeholders within the Waharau community, tino pai [very good], they make a quality product, tino pai. But I would like to see a change in practice. Especially when it comes to direct discharge into our waterways.”

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