Fonterra’s proposed wastewater plant near Cambridge has drawn opposition from locals who say it should take place on industrial-zoned land, not in the middle of farms, lifestyle blocks and retirement homes

Residents in a rural area of Cambridge are unhappy about Fonterra’s proposal to put a wastewater treatment plant on a rural farm it owns, saying it belongs on industrial, not rural-zoned, land.

The plant is hoped to improve the quality of wastewater that is pumped into the Waikato River.

Since 1994, Buxton farm has been used by Fonterra as somewhere to irrigate its wastewater with nutrient levels unsuitable for discharging into the Waikato River. 

It’s one of a number of Fonterra-owned farms where the land is prioritised for soaking up wastewater from dairy processing operations. All dairy cows have been removed from the farm to reduce further nitrogen from urine and faeces leaching into groundwater. The only thing farmed is grass, which is cut and transported elsewhere for stock feed.

Resource consent applications to the Waikato Regional Council and the Waipa District Council propose a large wastewater treatment facility is constructed on the farm in an area where soil isn’t as suitable for irrigation. Irrigation of wastewater to the rest of the farm would continue. 

For locals there’s concern an industrial wastewater treatment facility in the rural area will impact wildlife, add truck traffic on a school road that is also popular with cyclists, spoil views, create odour and reduce property values.

There’s also a lack of trust based both on what locals feel has been a lacklustre initial attempt by Fonterra to communicate its plans, and past and current issues with the wastewater irrigated on the farm affecting water quality of private water bores locals drink from.

Now Fonterra says it is considering putting its consent applications on hold, according to Fonterra Hautapu operations manager Shane Harris: “…residents put forward some good ideas around the location of the WWTF [wastewater treatment facility]. We are now discussing these ideas with the regional and district councils and exploring other options/locations for the WWTF.” 

Harris won’t disclose where the locations are yet, saying it’s “early days”, but confirmed one location is in an industrially-zoned area.

Local opposition

Local farmer Philip Coles leads a steering group set up since he heard of the proposal. He said the sentiment in the community is “unanimously no”. He doesn’t know the total number of submissions opposing the application but thinks they number in the hundreds. 

“This is a commercial activity in a stunning rural-residential area.”

Along with farms and lifestyle properties, the area had a number of new retirement homes in close proximity to the proposed plant. Some residents wouldn’t have moved to the area if they had known of the plans, he said. 

The design of the plant hasn’t been finalised, it could be ponds or tanks. Image: Fonterra presentation to local community

Notification about the proposal has been patchy, according to Brenda Bell, who owns a lifestyle property around 1000m from the site of the planned facility.

Contrary to Fonterra’s claim of extensive consultation, she said initial attempts to engage with the community were poor.

The company told her it had done a letterbox drop of 200 properties inviting them to a community meeting in 2018. Fewer than 20 people attended the event. 

She said she did not receive a letter and Fonterra could not provide a list of people the letter had been given to as it had driven around putting letters in letterboxes.

She only learned of the proposal at the beginning of the Level 3 lockdown, when a letter inviting residents to a Zoom meeting made it to her letterbox.

“That’s the first we heard of the facility at all. People who have lived here for 30 years, that was the first they had too. So the extensive consultation before the application was lodged was basically untrue.”

Fonterra’s Harris said three newspaper advertisements were also placed and it held an evening meeting on the site which 25 people attended.

“At the same time we recognise that we can always improve on our communications and that it is something we are focused on right now.”

Following community meetings held by both the community and Fonterra, submission deadlines to the resource consent applications were extended.

Bell has numerous objections to the plan. 

“The key thing is it’s a non-complying activity in a rural land zone. They have to show us the effects are no more than minor.”

There are threatened long-tailed bats on the property to consider, which could be affected even though the proposal is to place the facility away from one stand of trees they use. 

Traffic is another concern, with indicative estimates from Fonterra suggesting 20 concrete truck movements per day, and 40 workers’ vehicles per day during construction. Once operational, this would reduce to six truck movements per day. The vehicles will pass a school and travel on roads used by cyclists. 

The rural views of some residents will also be affected. While Bell personally won’t be able to see the plant from her home, people living on land looking down on the farm would get a good view. The possibility of odour remains a concern, despite assurances it will not be a problem. 

Ground water quality in the area is another concern the proposal has highlighted for the community.

“The land around here has already been poisoned by what they’ve been doing, and even after they put this in, they still want to irrigate … not as bad, but they’re still poisoning the land,” said Bell.

Water quality issues

Neighbours say the company’s previous management of the property has led to nitrate levels above drinking water standards of a maximum of 11.3 mg/L. They say Fonterra dropped the ball on monitoring, communication and providing potable water for residents whose water is affected. 

Fonterra holds a consent until 2024 to spread the equivalent of 300 to 400 kgs of nitrogen per hectare per year on the Buxton farm, depending on the soil type. This allows them to irrigate the farm with nitrogen-containing wastewater from the Hautapu factory. Part of the conditions of the consent include monitoring neighbours’ water bores and supplying drinkable water if levels exceed 10mg/L.

“I’ve certainly lost my trust in Fonterra, right through. They haven’t been completely honest with us. They have not told a lie, but they haven’t told us the whole truth,” said Bob McLocklan, a local farmer who lives 20m from the farm. 

His bore water has nitrate levels above national drinking water standards that are set to avoid ‘blue baby syndrome’. They’re well above levels a recent Danish study associated with increased risks of colorectal cancer.

McLocklan said monitoring results from Fonterra’s tests on his bore stopped being supplied to him by Fonterra about 18 months ago.

Harris confirms there has been a period where residents weren’t told results. A staff member who used to do this left and the task fell through the cracks.

“We have apologised to our neighbours and changed our processes so this doesn’t happen again. After residents pointed this out to us, we have since begun updating them each month and we have also provided them with the historical data.”

That data shows McLocklan’s water had a level of 12mg/L at Christmas. This came as a shock to him: “That means for the last six months I’ve been drinking contaminated water.

McLocklan is waiting for Fonterra to supply him with a reverse osmosis filter to reduce nitrate levels but has heard nothing back from them for at least a month. At the moment he’s drinking bottled water.

In total, Fonterra is now monitoring 18 properties close to the farm. Eight of those were only added to the monitoring list last month. In the past five years Harris said seven properties have returned results above 11.3mg/L. 

One property had six consecutive months with levels over 11.3mg/L. Another had six non-consecutive months where levels reached over 11.3mg/L. Fonterra has supplied both of these properties with filtration systems. 

Another five properties have been given filtration systems, and Harris said Fonterra would be talking to four residents whose properties had recently had results over 10mg/L.

Fonterra told locals the treated wastewater would reduce nitrate leaching by 28 percent. For neighbouring properties with water bores, it said this should gradually improve nitrate levels over time. 

For McLocklan, who said he would have a front-window view of the treatment plant if it went ahead, the hope a different home is found for it is only part of the problem. 

“Since we’ve dug into this we know we have a water quality problem. Whether we push harder and say they have to get rid of the irrigation, I’m not sure.”

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