Laws calls bullsh*t on Queenstown overflows

A former MP and shock jock says Queenstown council’s making excuses in seeking a 35-year approval for sewer overflows. David Williams reports.

Michael Laws knows a thing or two about sewage overflows.

When he was elected mayor of Whanganui in 2004, the council inherited plans for a new wastewater treatment plant. After Laws’ two terms as mayor, and one as councillor, the plant failed, costing the community $27 million, and resulting in the emergency discharge of raw sewage and other nasties into the Tasman Sea. A replacement $40 million plant only opened last year.

An independent review of the shambles blamed the demise of Whanganui’s “crude, low-technology, low cost plant” on staff shortcomings, including misinforming councillors, and downplaying known risks. But it also highlighted the need for good governance, questioning councillors, and peer reviews.

Laws, a former National MP and radio talkback host, told the inquiry: “At no stage was my governance team aware of or alerted to any design risks” and the plant’s subsequent failure “was neither unforeseen nor imagined by the governance teams of the time”.

The inquiry’s report was released in September 2016, by which time Laws was living in Cromwell. A month later he was elected to the Otago Regional Council, taking the seat by just five votes.

Michael Laws on Whanganui mayoral duties at the Heartland Championship Meads Cup rugby final in 2009. Photo: Getty Images

Now the tables have turned. Queenstown’s council is seeking a 35-year consent for overflows, to water and land, from its wastewater network. In local body election year, Laws accuses the council of seeking a “licence to pollute”.

In recent years, the Otago Regional Council’s patience has run out with offending councils. It’s taken Queenstown’s council to court twice because of sewer overflows, resulting in about $62,000 of fines. It has also prosecuted the Clutha District Council.

Laws says Queenstown’s council has applied for a blanket overflow consent because “they know they’re going to get hammered”. “They’re going to get hammered every year for not doing their job. They don’t want to be hammered – this is their cheap, and nasty way out. And it’s wrong.”

Queenstown’s excuses don’t wash, he says. “Why on earth would you even want to play around with the very environment that’s created the community and the commerce that’s currently there? It’s extraordinary.”

‘There will always be overflows’

On the face of it, Queenstown council’s consent application seems reasonable.

It’s one of the fastest-growing areas for population increases in the country, and the country’s premiere tourist destination. That forces a small population, of about 35,000 people, to pay for infrastructure to cope with three million visitors. (A 34-to-one ratio of tourists-to-resident is a big reason why Mayor Jim Boult is pushing the Government for a bed tax.)

The district’s wastewater system isn’t perfect, the council admits, and never will be.

“It is important to note that, unfortunately, there will always be overflows, no matter how good our – or anyone’s – system is, or how much capacity council invests in,” the council’s senior planning engineer Mark Baker says in an emailed statement. “These overflows can be caused by foreign objects entering the network, damaged pipes, illegal connections, and other means. These are the kinds of overflows that occur currently, and quantifying the risk of the current overflows that occur in a random manner is difficult.”

Over the next nine years, the council promises to spend $105 million on its wastewater network, like upgrades of pump stations, pipes and treatment plants. It will also produce an annual monitoring report, so the regional council can track improvements, and suggests the regional council have the power to regularly review consent conditions.

Lakeside pipes

Queenstown Mayor Boult, who last year bristled at the regional council (ORC) taking a prosecution against his council for a sewage discharge, tells Newsroom the council would prefer there weren’t any overflows. “The reality is, though, we’ve got really old infrastructure that’s all round the edge of the lake.”

He expands on that narrative, saying large parts of Queenstown’s network were “built by backyard plumbers on the weekend”. (The overflows consent application says: “The predominant cause of wastewater overflows is foreign objects in the systems, rather than age-related failures of the infrastructure.”)

Boult says the main problem is its sewer pipes run around the edge of lakes. “And when we have a spill, because a contractor puts concrete down the pipe or somebody drives a digger over it, or something or other, council gets taken to task by the ORC and fined heavily. We’re just recognising the reality of the situation.”

In the council’s consent application, discharges are said to be occasional and accidental, but can make people sick if they come into contact with contaminated water. Overall, the council characterises overflow effects as “more than minor but less than significant”. In particular, large lakes like Wakatipu and Wanaka are “highly sensitive”.

Niwa was contracted by the council to undertake a “microbial risk assessment”. But the Crown research institute said much of the data required don’t exist. If the council adopted several additions to its overflow response plans, the risk to human health from an “occasional discharge” of wastewater from the sewer network was “low to very low”.

“Every excuse you have provided to me now is bullshit.” – Michael Laws

In summary, the council says it plans to spend more than $100 million on its wastewater network over 10 years, and the major causes of overflows, like tree roots and fats being poured into drains, seem to be largely outside its control. Capacity problems and old infrastructure don’t appear to be the main causes.

Isn’t that acceptable?

Laws is unflinchingly impolite: “Unfortunately I know a lot about wastewater treatment plants, and unfortunately I know a lot about district councils doing it wrong. But every excuse you have provided to me now is bullshit.”

It’s not like there’s a long line of other councils seeking the same thing, he points out.

Laws claims Queenstown’s pipes have been allowed to deteriorate through neglect, and says that promised council spending contained in long-term plans isn’t guaranteed. Big-ticket infrastructure spending is the first to be delayed if priorities change or rates need to come down in election year, he says.

“I did it myself, as mayor.”

The regional council hung back from prosecuting Queenstown’s council for overflows for years, Laws says. “They had plenty of warning.”

Leeway likely

Environmental law specialist Dr Ken Palmer, of the University of Auckland, says it’s unlikely any council would get a consent to pollute for 35 years. However, if there are capacity issues and there’s no chance of solving the overflow problems overnight, the consent’s probably going to be granted, he says.

“But there’ll be conditions trying to minimise it, monitor it, report on it, and there’ll probably be a review at certain trigger points.” The hard word will be put on the council to upgrade its network and capacity.

Consider what’s being done in Auckland.

Auckland Council-owned body Watercare has approval to spill overflows, caused mainly by wet weather, into the Waitematā and Manukau harbours. It’s building a new $1.2 billion wastewater pipe, dubbed the central interceptor, from Western Springs to the Māngere treatment plant. When it’s finished in 2025, it’s expected to reduce overflow volumes into the harbours by up to 80 percent a year.

Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor, a former Watercare director, says his biggest beef with the Queenstown consent is its proposed duration. “Thirty-five years is too long-a-time in this fast-developing modern world where technology’s improving all the time.”

He’s also concerned that there won’t be some sort of limit on the number of overflows allowed each year. “Otherwise, as you say, it’s just a licence to not seek to improve the situation.”

“We need to own our shit, and know how to deal with it.” – Alexa Forbes

More than 160 submissions on the Queenstown council consent have been received by the regional council, the Otago Daily Times reported. Independent hearing commissioners are yet to be appointed.

Someone who’s already aired her opinion is district councillor Alexa Forbes, who, this year, is standing for the regional council. In a column in community paper Mountain Scene, she says she wants the consent’s 35-year timeframe dropped to 15 years and conditions “greatly tightened”.

But the community has to play its part, too, she says. “We need to own our shit, and know how to deal with it.”

The Otago Regional Council’s tougher water plan, with stricter rules about discharging contaminants into water, is meant to kick in next year.

Laws says if his council is prepared to prosecute farmers for “piffling amounts of runoff”, it should be comfortable taking on territorial authorities as well. Queenstown has had years to clean up its act, he says, and now they want decades more.

“Nah – you go and sort it out now.”

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