However, the Commissioners’ recommendation is subject to stringent conditions which mean the only permissible discharge must result from a true emergency; something they say is unlikely to occur during the limited five year period the consent would allow for.
The consent specifically excludes discharges that occur “as a result of wet weather wastewater inflows alone to the pump station” and also specifies the station’s pumping capacity must at all times exceed the “maximum instantaneous inflow rate” to the station.
The Commissioners have effectively put the WDC on notice, making it a compulsory condition of the consent that if an emergency discharge from the pump station does occur, the Northland Regional Council (NRC) must review the station’s consent conditions within three months at the District Council’s expense.
They said historic data flow data showed that over the past 13 years – had the station been upgraded to its current standard – there would have been just one occasion when there would have been an overflow. (That involved a freak accident which saw a falling shipping container take out power lines and in turn cause mains power to go down.)
“We are satisfied that the discharge for which consent is now sought will be a rare and unexpected event, with a high probability it will not occur at all during the five year term of the consent.”
The Commissioners said they were “highly critical” of the WDC, which for more than 20 years had had an obligation to improve its wastewater discharge performance at the Okara pumping station.
The Commissioners said it was clear to them that when the NRC granted a six-year water right to the then Whangarei City Council in 1989 that the Regional Council considered the overflow problem would be completely addressed within those six years, however, that had not occurred.
In 1996, the WDC had successfully applied for a renewal of the previous water right and the Commissioners said it was also clear that at the time there was an expectation by both the NRC and the Conservation Minister that discharges from the pump station would “progressively diminish” during the term of the new permit.
Once again that did not occur and the Commissioners were both “surprised and disappointed” that the WDC had in 2001 taken advantage of provisions under the Resource Management Act that had effectively allowed it to continue to operate the plant for almost seven years under conditions that would otherwise have expired in May 2002.
Doing so, had effectively more than doubled the length of the original consent and the Commissioners said they would not have been surprised had allegations of abuse of process been made against the WDC.
“..It appears that it has only been very recently, and we suspect as a direct result of the vigorous community action taken following the notification of the 2008 application, that WDC began to address the matter with greater urgency.”
The Commissioners noted that the NRC had received more than 600 submissions to the WDC’s 2001/2008 application, most strongly opposed to it being granted.
That in turn had led to the WDC substantially amending its application in May this year and the hearing had been held in Whangarei from June 11 to June 14.
The Commissioners noted that while recent improvements had improved the discharge position at the Okara pump station, that work “had the potential to create a greater problem at the Whangarei Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP)”. (That matter will be addressed in a separate decision on a resource consent application the WDC has made for the WWTP.)
The Hearings Committee’s recommendation the WDC be granted a coastal permit to discharge untreated wastewater from Okara Park Pump Station to Hatea River will now go to the Conservation Minister for a final decision.
The three Independent Commissioners who heard the WDC application were its Chairman, Hamilton barrister Doug Arcus and Palmerston North consultant Hamish Lowe (both representing the NRC) and Auckland consultant John Smart (representing the Minister of Conservation).
If granted, the consent will run for just five years and expire on 31 May 2015.
The Commissioners’ full decision can be viewed on the following page: www.nrc.govt.nz/consentdecisions