Controversial sewage pond work gets extension

The long-awaited upgrade of a tiny West Coast town’s damaged sewage treatment ponds has a time extension – but the district council’s still being investigated for possible environmental rule breaches. David Williams reports.

Faced with possible prosecution over an “unsightly and smelly discharge” into the Waiho River bed, the Westland District Council went, with its hand out, to the Government.

The tiny tourist town of Franz Josef might sit on the edge of a national park but its inadequate oxidation ponds, damaged in a flood in March 2016, were only partially treating its wastewater. The river bed area receiving the icky discharge is open to the public and used by a tourism company that runs four-wheel motorcycle tours.

Just before Christmas last year, with a court-mandated deadline looming for completing an upgrade, the district council was awarded almost $2 million from the Government’s Tourism Infrastructure Fund. The council’s application to the fund argued that Westland was a small local authority with limited financial resources. It was close to maximum debt limits.

Franz Josef has about 300 ratepayers who, in peak season, support more than 3000 tourists a day. If the council took a 10-year loan to pay for the upgrade, it would raise annual rates by $900 a year, the application said.

The council told the Government that the state of the Franz Josef ponds was “totally unsatisfactory to council and the Franz Josef community”. It was also unacceptable to the environmental watchdog, West Coast Regional Council.

History of non-compliance

The regional council has, in the past, issued the Westland council with abatement and infringement notices for the Franz Josef ponds breaching consent conditions. The regional council went to the Environment Court to force Westland to clean up its act, which led to an order in November 2016. That order demanded that a new, compliant plant be up and running by May this year.

On the last day it had to comply, April 30, the council asked the court for a 10-month extension. Its application, not opposed by the regional council, said it hadn’t been able to comply because it lacked in-house expertise and its procurement process was delayed by a Serious Fraud Office investigation. It had also changed its thinking on the design.

Environment Court Judge Jane Borthwick granted the district council an extension until April 30 next year. The judge’s decision, released in late July, said: “I accept on this occasion that extraordinary circumstances have conspired to frustrate the district council’s ability to comply with the earlier orders.”

In cause for optimism, the district council met its first deadline, last Friday, for submitting its final plans for the work and applying for the relevant consents.

Westland Mayor Bruce Smith tells Newsroom having extra time to complete the Franz Josef ponds work is a relief. “We believe that it’s going out for tender in the next few weeks. The construction period is not that long. I don’t think it will take anything like until April.”

Meanwhile, the West Coast Regional Council is watching closely. In April of this year, it issued the district council with an abatement notice for being in breach of its consent. Westland undertook remedial work to comply.

Regional council consents and compliance manager Heather McKay says of the latest court order that the council will monitor the work’s progress closely. She adds that investigations into the district council’s non-compliance is ongoing. “A final decision on any other enforcement action is yet to be made.”

Warnings mixed with ongoing problems

Problems with Franz Josef’s oxidation ponds are not new. A 2009 report prepared for the council said the treatment plant was regularly failing to meet consent compliance limits for suspended solids, biological oxygen demand and faecal coliforms. A 2014 report warned of a “very high chance” the Waiho River would break its banks and inundate the ponds before 2019.

Various plans have been advanced to upgrade or rebuild Franz Josef’s wastewater treatment scheme over the years. A previous council wanted to build a completely new scheme, costing up to $9 million, but that was whittled down to a $7 million upgrade, which would have built a new treatment plant in the town. Smith’s council, after elected in October 2016, opted for a cheaper, short-term upgrade of the oxidation ponds.

Beyond environmental effects, the proposed ponds work have been controversial for other reasons.

Two years ago, the district council awarded a contract for the $7 million upgrade to a company, Techno Economic Services (NZ), headed by an Auckland cake-decorator, before Smith’s newly elected council cancelled it.

The same company won a contract to upgrade water treatment plants in Kumara and Whataroa. But that was torn up after the issue hit the headlines. The council operations manager who oversaw the tender, Vivek Goel, quit and is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.

In July last year, the council agreed to spend $1.3 million on “emergency works” at the ponds, installing a new infiltration gallery and building a 700-metre-long, rocky stopbank. A complaint about the council’s procurement process, and potential conflicts of interest, prompted a probe by the Office of the Auditor-General.

Both investigations are ongoing.

Stopbank work needed: mayor

Mayor Smith says if the council hadn’t used emergency powers to push through the works, “the ponds would have been gone now”. He’s not sure when the Auditor-General’s report might be released.

“In any event, it all comes down to, do you stand by and watch your school and your Top Ten motor camp and your power substation be washed away, or do you put rock in and make sure it isn’t?”

Meanwhile, Franz Josef’s twin threats of the Waiho River and the Alpine Fault have sparked talk the 144-property town should be moved.

A grim Tonkin + Taylor report, published last October, put the “case for change”. It said if the Waiho River was left unmanaged, in less than 30 years the river bed’s build-up, or aggradation, would force the majority of the town to be relocated. The report also warned it was possible an Alpine Fault rupture would trigger a large landslide with “catastrophic consequences”.

Options presented in the report were building huge natural defences to protect the town, moving it to Lake Mapourika (costing about $300 million), and a compromise between the two, that would manage flooding risks and move key assets off the active fault zone.

Councils have made a $2 million application has been made to set out concrete options for Franz’s future.

However, talk of moving gets short shrift from Smith. He says the desire to shift from townfolk is non-existent. “That’s a huge ask. Someone would have to write out a huge cheque. Look, it won’t be in my lifetime.”

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