Buried waste is removed from conservation land after a lakeside lodge is investigated. David Williams reports

It started with an appeal against a building consent.

Businessman Steve Simmons got Waitaki District Council approval to build a huge house on his property near Lake Ōhau, in the South Island’s Mackenzie Basin. The decision was appealed in 2018 by Ōhau Protection Society, chaired by Lake Ohau Lodge owner Mike Neilson.

The Environment Court threw out the appeal and ordered the society pay Simmons $40,500 in costs. In a judgment issued in April last year, Judge John Hassan said the society essentially ran the same case it did with the council, and while there were public interest aspects behind the appeal “that is not the dominant motivation”. The decision said: “OPS members are also land and business owners with private interests in protecting the landscape and the value (in a financial sense) associated with that.”

In May of this year, at Simmons’ petition, the society – with $485 in the bank – tumbled into liquidation, still owing the full costs.

This initial fracas seems to have sparked a series of events that led the lodge, located 7km from the village, to be investigated, and paying tens of thousands of dollars for the removal of waste it buried on leased conservation land. Approval for a pig sty on conservation land was also reversed by the Department of Conservation (DoC).

The latest twist is that police confirm a man will appear in the Oamaru District Court today charged with wilful damage, over allegations a drone – owned by Simmons – was shot down near the lodge.

In a statement about the waste buried near Lake Ohau Lodge, ECan, Canterbury’s regional council, says the lodge owners were cooperative with its investigation, and the issues found were minor and remedied quickly. “Therefore no enforcement action was necessary,” South Canterbury manager Justin McLauchlan says.

Simmons bristles at that. He’s spent hours documenting – with on-ground photos, drone footage, and satellite images – rubbish dumping near the lodge and other alleged infractions and sent dozens of emails urging authorities to “do their job”.

“If I hadn’t been hounding them, there’s no way that place would be cleaned up.”

Neilson borrows language from DoC, saying that burying waste was historic practice. “That was the way we dealt with it – we’ve been here 30 years. When we came here that was the practice.” (The lodge was established on the site in 1951.)

That’s not appropriate now, he says, and the lodge – which proudly mentions a sustainability programme on its website – complied accordingly, once the issue was raised. But should rubbish buried on conservation land near the lodge, including some before Neilson’s time, remain there?

“I think that’s something you’ve got to ask the authorities. I’m not an expert.”

An open-air junk yard near Lake Ohau Lodge. Photo: Steve Simmons

Simmons, who owns companies on both sides of the Tasman specialising in detecting leaks in water pipes, admits there’s bad blood over the Ōhau Protection Society case but says he didn’t specifically go searching for non-compliance at the lodge.

He stumbled into problems there while researching potential water contamination issues on behalf of Lake Ōhau’s ratepayers’ association, which was considering a Waitaki District Council plan to move the village’s drinking water source.

What he found on conservation land near the lodge was an open-air dump with oil drums, an old ski lift, scrap metal, and asbestos. Simmons says initially neither DoC nor ECan seemed overly interested in investigating. “It took a significant amount of prodding to get them to actually do anything about it.”

An ECan investigation report supports the claim. The report, written in September last year, said complaints about non-compliance raised “January – July 2019” were investigated between “30 July to 6 September 2019”. (Confusingly, DoC says a joint inspection with ECan was done on June 11.)

Simmons says once it was clear to the lodge he’d discovered the rubbish dump, a digger rolled in and dug a pit for the rubbish to be buried. Today, the site is “95 percent better than what it was”, but he puts that down to his persistence with agencies.

He’s still upset, however, a commercial operator can escape sanction – other than having to foot the bill for the clean-up – for such disgraceful pollution when DoC could have, for example, cancelled the lodge’s concession.

“If you or I had done that we’d be prosecuted; we’d be in the courts.”

“Without locating and digging up each of the pits, it is impossible to know exactly what has been buried over the 28-year occupation of the lodge by the current owners.” – ECan investigation report

ECan’s 2019 investigation report said rubbish pits were used “around the lodge and on the neighbouring Department of Conservation land” to bury household waste, but it’s an “old practice that is being phased out”. The Canterbury land and water regional plan allows for the use of on-site refuse pits under certain rules.

The report notes: “Without locating and digging up each of the pits, it is impossible to know exactly what has been buried over the 28-year occupation of the lodge by the current owners.”

Confronted by the allegations, Neilson admitted to recently digging a pit and burying waste, the report said, “including a plastic reservoir liner, pieces of a broken plastic water tank, old skis and ski boots, treated plywood and gib board”.

The council’s contaminated sites scientist advised those items posed a risk if left in the ground and must be removed. “Mr Neilson has agreed to dig this pit up, remove the waste and dispose of it in an appropriate manner. This will be supervised and documented by Environment Canterbury staff.” (Removal was completed late last year.)

A large quantity of scrap metal was taken to the Twizel resource recovery centre, and tyres returned to a local farmer. A chairlift stored in the open air was found to pose no environment risk. Oil drums “intended to be opened, filled with concrete and used as weights for the chairlifts” were returned to a local fuel distributor.

Scrap metal and rubbish strewn across land near Lake Ohau Lodge. Photo: Steve Simmons

As to the whereabouts of chemical containers, Neilson told ECan they may have gone to the Twizel centre “or be in the hole with the other items he buried”. No action was recommended, “subject to what is identified buried in the hole”. (ECan took no formal enforcement action.)

Asbestos was identified in one ECan sample, but its source was unclear and no more was found. A sample taken by Simmons, which tested positive for asbestos, had “limited” probative value, ECan said.

Corrugated asbestos was removed by the lodge in May last year and the site declared asbestos-free. (There were missing pieces of asbestos cladding from the walls of the lodge’s “boiler house” which, Neilson guessed, might have been inadvertently thrown out with the trucked-away rubbish, or buried.)

ECan investigated a pig sty on “scrubby” conservation land. Water from the area filters into a small stream, flowing downhill to Lake Ōhau. Water samples revealed a “slightly elevated level of E.coli”. DoC directed the pig sty be removed – “removal of the pigs will remove the source of contamination”.

(As a result of Simmons’ other complaints, leaky sewage pipes were fixed, and a solution was being found for the main septic waste system which wasn’t functioning well – “very little of the ammonia is being broken down as it should be”. Ammonia has been added to periodic waterways testing.)

ECan’s investigation concluded there were no significant Resource Management Act breaches and formal enforcement action was considered unnecessary, given there was no significant adverse environment effects, the owners cooperated fully, and issues had been remedied at the owner’s expense.

A fenced pig sty (middle) near Lake Ohau Lodge. Photo: Steve Simmons

Initially, Neilson isn’t interested in answering Newsroom’s questions, and points us to emailed statements from ECan and DoC. “I think their answers are the pertinent answers,” he says “I don’t want to inflame the situation.”

As mentioned earlier, ECan’s McLauchlan said the landowner was cooperative. “The issues we found were only minor and remedied quickly by the landowner at his own expense, therefore no enforcement action was necessary. We continue to monitor the property to ensure compliance.”

Meanwhile, DoC’s Twizel operations manager Karina Morrow – who Simmons credits with improving the department’s response – said: “The disposal of rubbish underground was historically a common practice around New Zealand and the Canterbury Land and Water Regional Plan allows for the use of on-site refuse disposal pits, under rule 5.27.”

Neilson explains later his reluctance to speak is partly because of the situation with Simmons. “In America they have vigilantes: people who go round and make it their job to be the judge, jury and police. Mr Simmons has decided that’s what he is.”

The lodge owner does eventually take Newsroom’s questions.

Is burying waste compatible with the lodge’s sustainability programme? “Our response is to be responsible citizens and when it’s pointed out, this practice, which was historic, we responded accordingly,” Neilson says. Carting away rubbish had cost his company “tens of thousands” of dollars.

He adds: “You know what they do with rubbish these days? They take it to North Canterbury and put it in a hole. Before they centralised it, they used to, on forms and properties like our own, they would bury it in the same way, except rather than being centralised it was localised.”

Why did it take eight months after a joint DoC-ECan inspection to remove the pig sty from conservation land?

“Moving pigs is not an instant thing,” Neilson says. Newsroom points out there were only four animals. “Yeah, they’re big brutes, too,” he says. “Manipulating big animals like that can be quite difficult.”

As an aside, it’s been a terrible year at Ōhau – “a shocker”, Neilson says.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shut the borders, barring international tourists, which has meant the suspension of plans – pending authorisation from DoC – to install an extra chairlift at the local skifield, operated by the Neilsons, known as Ohau Snow Fields.

In October, a fire ravaged Lake Ōhau village, destroying almost 50 homes. Simmons lost two holiday homes (the lakeside one at the centre of the 2018 dispute is yet to be built), while Neilson lost his house, all his possessions, and his work laptop. The 72-room Lake Ohau Lodge, 7km away, was unscathed.

Back to the waste issue. What happens now? The agencies pushed to investigate the lodge now say they’re keeping a close eye.

DoC’s Morrow says beyond last year’s demand to empty the waste pit, the lodge was required to remove a pit for composting paper and cardboard after a compliance check in July this year. (Last year an ECan scientist advised the material posed no environmental threat.) However, there’s no suggestion the lodge will be forced to remove all rubbish on conservation land.

“The burial of rubbish on public conservation land is a historic activity and is not considered appropriate at this location,” Morrow says. “DoC staff will continue to monitor the site and work closely with ECan to ensure no further underground disposal on the lease occurs.”

Simmons, who has been living with his mother in Timaru, isn’t reassured. He says the saga at Ōhau shows how public agencies tasked with environmental protection are asleep at the wheel and interested in only bare minimum “enforcement”.

“What was removed was likely the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “How and why can this commercial operator get away with this?”

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

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