Southland’s regional council calls in the Environmental Protection Authority to review its investigation, David Williams reports

The investigation into a senior Southland councillor over an alleged breach of water rules has found existing use rights trumped the potential need for a resource consent.

Environment Southland deputy chair Lloyd McCallum – a director of Strone Farms – stepped aside from his role on the regional council’s regulatory committee in June, as the company was investigated over a complaint made in May. The complaint alleged he was feeding cows in a riverbed. McCallum became aware of the complaint when Newsroom rang him for comment.

The investigation is now completed, the regional council’s policy planning and regulatory general manager Vin Smith confirmed in a statement today, and no enforcement action will be taken.

The area where cattle were fed wasn’t a riverbed, the Smith said. Although feeding might have required consent under the proposed Southland Water and Land Plan, a consent wasn’t needed under existing use rights contained in the Resource Management Act.

“The activity was not unlawful,” Smith said. “No action will be taken and the investigation is now closed.”

The council sought legal advice and requested the Environmental Protection Authority review the case. Based on the information provided, the EPA agreed no offence had occurred.

In a statement read at the beginning of today’s regulatory committee meeting, McCallum said being the subject of an investigation was stressful for him and his family, and he’s relieved it’s over. He’s resuming his role on the committee.

Bernadette Hunt, vice president of the Southland branch of Federated Farmers, says Southland suffered extreme flooding in February, which dumped gravel and, in some cases, lignite coal, across what had, prior to that, been paddocks.

“I understood at the time that it was likely that that was the cause of what we saw in those photos, and I’m not surprised that there hasn’t been any enforcement action required after further investigation.”

Environmental campaigner Angus Robson was surprised, however. “I thought that this was a pretty clear breach of publicly accepted standards and what should be considered legally accepted standards.”

The council could have sent a clear message something was wrong without crucifying its councillor, he says.

“Letting him off sends an entirely different message that I’m really unhappy about.”

In a statement, regulatory boss Smith said the complaint, made on May 4, was triaged “according to Environment Southland’s incident prioritisation protocol” and Covid-19 alert level three restrictions. “When the investigation commenced, the property was identified as belonging to Strone Farms Ltd, of which Environment Southland deputy chairman Lloyd McCallum is one of four directors.” The site was visited on June 8.

Smith said the “extensive” investigation determined the paddock where stock were fed was fenced from the river and “there was no evidence to suggest any contaminant discharges to land that may lead to water”.

Rule 35a of the proposed Southland Water and Land Plan says feed pads or lots shouldn’t be within 50 metres of a waterway and, if they are, may require consent. However, Smith’s statement points out until the plan is operative – after appeals have been settled – existing uses are permitted under the Resource Management Act.

Robson, who lives in Matamata, says while the plan isn’t operative, the rules have been discussed for years and McCallum ought to be aware of what they are. He believes it’s arguable the area inundated with river gravels is a riverbed, and takes umbrage at a public road being blocked by a shut gate with an “access closed” sign on it.

(McCallum said today he won’t comment further. But in June he said of the gates: “They’re not locked, they can go through if they want to. Most people come and ask me.”)

Feeding cattle on river stones also raises animal health issues, Robson says. He scoffs at the council’s statement there was no evidence contaminants were being discharged to water.

Even if cow urine, excrement, and silage, isn’t sliding directly into the river, he says there’s groundwater underneath the area that joins up with the river.

“Those cows are pissing straight into the groundwater, with absolutely no cut-off. It’s pure nitrate going into that river, it doesn’t even get a look at any chance of attenuation or growing out.”

Robson adds: “It’s not just about councils’ own  rules and how they choose to apply them to their own members, it’s also about New Zealand incorporated and is this is right or wrong? And it’s wrong.”

The gate across Valley Rd, Lochiel. Photo: Supplied

Hunt, of Federated Farmers, says a large number of Southland paddocks had gravel deposited on them in February’s floods, and it would be unreasonable to deem an affected paddock a riverbed.

She wouldn’t comment on potential animal welfare issues, saying she’d only seen photos taken from a distance.

“Lloyd McCallum takes his responsibilities very seriously,” Hunt says. “People that are in positions like he is, where you are scrutinised, know that they have to meet a higher standard quite often. I have faith that Lloyd would be making every effort to look after the both the welfare of his stock and the outcomes on environment.”

Hunt says “large segments” of the proposed Southland land and water plan have been appealed. “And they’re being appealed because they’re considered, in some cases, to not be appropriate.”

It seems there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge, yet, for Southland’s battle over agricultural contamination.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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