Marsden Pt oil refinery.The Council works closely with the Marsden Pt oil refinery and visiting ships to minimise pollution threats. Pollution can be described as something that changes the environment in a negative way. From individuals to big factories, everyone has an impact on our environment.

Pollution can be big or small, visible or invisible. It can be large oil spills that ruin the coast to little drips of oil washed into the water when people wash their boats. It can be visible like smoky fires in a back yard to tiny particles that can only be seen through a microscope. Pollution can be in the land, sea, air and water.

One of the best ways to know if the environment around you is polluted is to use your senses. You can usually see, smell or taste if something is not pure any more - if it has been polluted. Often pollution is waste or rubbish that is discharged or discarded by people. Waste does not go away. It is simply moved to another place - into a rubbish tip or landfill or poured down a drain. Household rubbish makes up a significant part of the solid waste produced in the region each year. Four landfills operate in Northland, and some solid waste is trucked out of the region. Transfer stations have largely replaced the old rural "dump". The waste collected at these is transferred to one of the four landfills.

About 2000 tonnes of glass, plastic, oil, paper and cardboard is collected annually through the Re:sort transfer and recycling centre in Whangarei. Most people don't want more landfills built near where they live, so there is a growing awareness of the need to reduce the amount of waste produced. Recycling is a good way to keep waste to a minimum.

Whangaroa harbour.The role of the Northland Regional Council is to manage the pollution risk so that beautiful places such as Whangaroa harbour in the Far North are protected for future generations to enjoy. Liquid waste is also produced in significant quantities, mostly in the form of sewage. Nearly all major settlements in the region have community sewage treatment systems. Small settlements and rural houses often rely on septic tank systems. In Northland, liquid waste from agriculture is a significant pollutant as well.

The Marsden Pt oil refinery at the mouth of the Whangarei Harbour is one of the biggest potential threats of pollution in the region. For this reason a large chunk of the country's oil pollution equipment is stored at the refinery or at the Northland Regional Council offices in case of a spill.

During 1999, a ship passing the Northland coast caused significant pollution of the Poor Knights Island's Marine Reserve when a bilge filter failed, resulting in a large oil spill.

Northland Regional Council's role and policies

The Northland Regional Council puts a large amount of effort into managing environmental pollution in land, sea, air and water. Everybody's actions have an impact on Northland's environment. Stopping, fixing or compensating for the effect of an action in another way are three options available to maximise the chance of managing Northland's resources in a sustainable way.

A dead cow polluting a waterway in the Far North.A dead cow polluting a waterway in the Far North. Dead animals should be buried away from waterways. One of our responsibilities under the Resource Management Act is to protect and improve environmental quality.

The Council has a Regional Policy Statement which sets out the objectives in managing the environment, and a series of Regional Plans which detail how to fulfil those objectives.

The Regional Policy Statement aims to allow people to undertake as wide a range of activities as possible, provided that significant adverse effects on the environment are avoided. The Council does this in a number of ways. One way is to educate the community about what it needs to do through seminars, pamphlets, school visits and the internet.

The Council has also set out rules in Plans for people to follow when they operate a business that might affect the environment. In some instances, people may have to apply for a Resource Consent when an activity may have an effect on the environment or is not permitted by a Council rule. We also keep an eye on the effects of businesses on the environment. If businesses are not following the rules in their resource consents, the Council can use a range of measures to make them comply.

We have a Regional Air Quality Plan, which sets out details of managing air quality in Northland. Northland also must play its part in reducing discharges of ozone-depleting substances in line with international agreements signed by New Zealand.

The Regional Water and Soil Plan covers all issues to do with soil and water, including pollution. The Council has developed these plans because of the importance of these resources and the many potential conflicts that can arise. District Councils are responsible for land use. However the NRC is responsible where activities have the potential to cause significant erosion or pollution. Rules may be used to set standards for and control the clearance of vegetation and earthworks to avoid erosion and prevent sediment from entering streams.

 The contaminated site of an old timber treatment yard.The contaminated site of an old timber treatment yard. We also have a strategy for Hazardous Wastes Management. The strategy involves waste minimisation, a registration and tracking system and final disposal options. We collect hazardous waste from the region. Hazardous chemicals are used on farms, in orchards and factories and in school science laboratories. When these are no longer needed, the chemicals are collected for disposal. If they cannot be disposed of safely, the NRC sends the chemicals in sealed containers to a special storage facility in Auckland. Some hazardous substances cannot be treated and disposed of in New Zealand, and have been sent overseas in the past for treatment and disposal.  

Land pollution

Some land pollution from many years ago continues to cause problems, and will do for hundreds of years. The sites of former Northland timber treatment companies, which used toxic chemicals in their processing, remain contaminated to this day. Old refuse dumps where banned farm chemicals were disposed of and the sites of sheep dips also remain contaminated. Some of these chemicals are cancer-causing, and break down only very slowly. Some contaminated sites have been cleaned up by the NRC.

The underground holding tanks of service stations are a potential source of contamination if they develop a leak. Many petrol stations have been required to install new tanks to stop this problem.

Newly designed petrol stations incorporate new ideas on pollution prevention such as collecting waste water from car washes and from around where petrol might have been spilled so that it cannot contaminate the earth and groundwater around the property.

 Typical chemicals handed into the Council chemical collection depots.Some of the typical chemicals handed into the Council chemical collection depots. Our staff now have a visual map of most contaminated sites through having been pinpointed with a global positioning system (GPS) device. These are accurate to within a few metres and the map co-ordinates of the sites are stored in a database at the Northland Regional Council. This means staff can find the sites again, and take tests regularly to see if there have been any changes. During 1999-2000 about 500 sites listed on the contaminated sites database were visited and inspected. The NRC also participates in a National Working Party Group set up with the aim of having a consistent approach to the management of contaminated sites in New Zealand.

The Council runs an agrichemical waste collection service to prevent future problems with unwanted agrichemicals and small quantities of other hazardous waste. The service, run in association with Wrightson's, has collection facilities at Whangarei, Dargaville, Waipapa and Kaitaia. During 1999-2000 about 3.7 tonnes of agrichemicals and 796.5kg of other hazardous waste were handed in to chemical collection depots. Of the chemicals, 900kg of herbicides were handed in, and since most were still safe to use these were distributed to landcare groups to help with their work.

While some erosion is a natural process, the actions of people have speeded up the process in many places. Erosion can be a cause of pollution because dirt is washed into streams and rivers to make water brown and murky. Northland clay soils create a fine sediment that can stay suspended in water for a long time. This affects the survival of sensitive native fish, insects and animals.

Earthworks can create problems when sediment is allowed to wash into waterways. Contractors are required to install ponds to collect sediment before it can reach streams. Significant earthworks are needed when subdivisions are being developed, when roads are being reformed and when forestry blocks are being harvested and replanted. Because Northland's climate is prone to heavy rainfalls that would cause erosion and sediment problems, contractors are restricted to earthworks at certain times of year when it is drier. Sediment traps are required to be installed as well. Forestry operators are also required to maintain a strip of vegetation near streams. Usually this is native vegetation because they have found that wind can easily topple isolated pine trees.

Cars at an illegal dump in the mid-north.Cars at an illegal dump in the mid-North. Erosion is reduced by changing land management practices of the past. Steep hillsides that were cleared may need to be replanted in trees to reduce instability of soils. Farmers can help by identifying areas of their farm that would be better returned to growing trees. Stock should be kept out of streams because they trample and damage stream banks. Fenced off streamsides can be replanted with native trees to stabilise the streambanks.

Fertiliser on paddocks can also cause problems when used in excess. This can be washed into waterways where it encourages plants in the water to grow - and this can cause algal blooms. Farmers are being encouraged to plant riparian strips along the edges of waterways. Trees, shrubs and grass all act to filter runoff before it reaches the water.

Wetlands are another method of filtering runoff before it reaches streams. The plants in the wetlands use up a lot of the nutrients which can be found in runoff from farms.

Illegal dumps can pollute the land, fresh water and sea because there is no control over what is dumped and where any pollution will end up. The Northland Regional Council has an ongoing programme of identifying dump sites, and requires the land owners and occupiers to remove and dispose of the rubbish properly. When no one responsible can be identified, the Council sometimes helps with clean-ups.

Sea pollution

Everything that is washed off the land by rainfall eventually ends up in the ocean. Northland is surrounded by some of the most stunning coastline in the world, but already there are some areas where it is not safe to swim during high summer months and after heavy rainfall.

This particularly happens near coastal areas that attract a lot of holiday makers over the summer. The hundreds of extra people put pressure on septic tanks at baches and holiday homes in those areas.

The Northland Regional Council carries out swimming water quality monitoring during the peak holiday season between December and January. Staff have developed a traffic light type system using national guidelines to decide whether a beach is safe for bathing. Green means safe for bathing; amber means potentially unsafe and red means highly unlikely to be safe for bathing. The system is based on water samples tested for enterococci and faecal coliforms - both of which can indicate pollution from sewage.

 NRC staff spray the wall of a cave with sea water.NRC staff spray the walls of a cave with sea water in the Poor Knights Islands marine reserve to try and remove the oil coating left by the spill from a passing ship. Absorbent pads were also used to mop up the oil coating. One of the biggest potential risks to the sea and coastline in Northland is from the Marsden Point oil refinery near Ruakaka and the ships which visit it to collect loads of fuel. The refinery has many ways of preventing pollution at its refinery and generally has a very good record.

In 1999 a ship was passing the Northland coast caused an oil spill when it emptied its bilge tanks into the sea near the Poor Knights Island marine reserve. A faulty filter allowed oil in the tanks to be released into the sea, causing a large oil slick. Part of the slick coated rocks at the islands, but fortunately much of the slick was washed out to sea. The Northland Regional Council maintains much of the country's emergency equipment to deal with oil spills because of the presence of the oil refinery, which is the only one in New Zealand. The NRC has a highly trained team, which operates in oil spill emergencies, and it holds regular training sessions so staff members know how to use equipment properly.

There are large floating booms with skirts to keep an oil slick from spreading further and large sausage-like bags to collect the oil for disposal. These can be emptied into temporary ponds for the oil. While thicker oil can be collected in this way if the weather is calm enough, stormy weather would make use of this equipment more difficult. Some fuels are thin and difficult to collect. These would tend to evaporate more quickly in the sun, or be sprayed with dispersant to break them up.

Loading fertiliser on and off ships can be a dusty business, creating a nuisance for people living nearby, and landing in the sea if care is not taken.

Boat repair yards are another potential source of pollution from sand blasting the bottom of boats and paints used to spruce them up again. New Zealand is one of only a few countries to have banned an anti-fouling paint called tributyltin. This paint is designed to kill off sea life so that it won't grow on the hulls and slow down the speed of the boat through the water. However, studies showed that the paint was ending in the harbour sediment around boat yards from cleaning the boat hulls. This was continuing to kill marine life. Copper-based anti-fouling paints are now being used. Some overseas naval vessels are using Teflon coating on the bottom of their boats - like giant floating non-stick frypans.

A less obvious but more likely source of pollution is from refuelling depots for small boat operators. Care needs to be taken that fuel is not spilled during refuelling, and when boats are washed at marinas after a day's outing. Absorbent pads are available to mop up any spills in boats before they are washed.
Every tiny bit of fuel counts in sea pollution.

Rubbish disposal at sea is strongly discouraged. We operate a rubbish barge in the Bay of Islands where yachties congregate over summer. Marine pollution regulations also require boaties to be at least 500 metres from shore and in deep water before dumping untreated sewage - this rules out most harbours in Northland. The Council is encouraging boaties to install holding tanks or treatment systems in a bid to keep harbours safe for everyone to enjoy. All rubbish from a boating trip should be taken home and disposed of properly to keep the sea clean for the future. 

Air pollution

A car creating a dust cloud.Dusty roads are a nuisance and are still common in Northland. Air is necessary for the survival of all living things. Air pollution is also one of the most obvious types of pollution because people can usually see it or smell it.

Dusty roads are an annoyance for people who live nearby, especially now they are no longer allowed to use oil on the road to dampen down the dust particles. Oil was found to be polluting streams beside the roads. The NRC recommends several products that can be used instead to dampen dusty roads. There are about six dust suppressant products on the market, ranging widely in price and usefulness. They work by creating a thin layer to bind the dust particles together. However, this can easily be churned up again with a lot of traffic, especially in hilly areas.

Find out more: Dust nuisance

Air pollution draws a lot of complaints when people see smoky fires, especially in the city. Northland's air is generally of a high quality, and is noted for its clear skies and fresh air. However, on still winter nights smoke and car exhaust fumes can be trapped under a layer of cold air and build up to cause problems. The prevailing south-westerly winds tend to whisk fumes and smoke away most of the time.

Find out more: Backyard burning

Factory chimney.Monitoring keeps a check on what is coming out of factory chimneys. We encourage people to avoid backyard burnoffs because of the annoyance and potential health hazard to neighbours. Home owners are encouraged instead to take their rubbish to a landfill operation.

Agricultural sprays are another source of complaints about air pollution. Farmers and orchardists are required to let neighbours know when they will be spraying. They are also being encouraged to undergo training in correct spray methods through Growsafe courses.

Find out more: Agrichemical spray

Odours are another source of complaint from the public. Businesses producing odours are meant to restrict these to within their boundaries. However, as this is difficult, the Council staff have been trained to detect the degree of odours. They have had their noses specially tested for their ability to detect odours as some people are more sensitive to smells than others.

Factories are required to have Resource Consents to release discharges into the air. These usually last for between three and five years. NRC staff set limits on what comes out of chimney stacks, the concentration of emissions and treatment methods.

Another type of air pollution is tinier than dust and hangs in the air where it can be a health danger for asthma sufferers and others with respiratory weaknesses. Called Particulate Matter, this air pollution is also dangerous because it can absorb chemicals, which can then be carried into the lungs. Car exhaust and smoke from domestic fires are major sources of particulate matter in Northland. Particulate matter can only be seen under a microscope.

Northland's contribution to greenhouse gases is mainly from industry, car exhaust fumes, use of fossil fuels, and methane gas from livestock, landfills, sewerage and agricultural waste treatment facilities.

Water pollution

The Northern Wairoa River.The Northern Wairoa River is known for its murky brown colour. Sediment from erosion and farming practices is kept stirred up by tidal movement. Many people think of water being polluted by a big spill from a factory or accident because it is very noticeable. However, other sources of water pollution are just as bad as big spills. These can include runoff from farmland and leaking septic tanks, which can be harder to trace. These can all add up to a significant pollution source.

Farming in Northland has been a major source of water pollution. Past farming practices used to let the dirty cowshed effluent go straight into streams and rivers. Now, however, farmers are required to collect the cowshed effluent into ponds. Natural bacteria in the ponds break down the effluent in the water. Farmers are being encouraged to spray this waste water on to paddocks as a good fertiliser.

Cities and towns create water pollution in many ways. All the roadsides have kerbing which channels water into stormwater drains. These all lead into streams and harbours.

Polluted stream.A polluted stream runs white after a milk spill in Northland. 

Washing cars on the driveway at home means the suds will be washed into the stormwater system. Biodegradable washing liquid still pollutes the water for a time because it uses oxygen in the water when it is breaking down. This means there is less oxygen for the fish and plants in the stream to use. It is better to wash the car on the lawn so that the grass can act as a filter.

People in towns sometimes pour paint or engine oil down drains, forgetting that these pollutants will end up in rivers and streams, which run out to the sea. Everything that is put down a drain eventually reaches waterways, so remember the saying:
"Drains should only drain rain.''

Water in the ground collects in underwater lakes called aquifers. Many people in rural areas get their drinking water from these water sources through wells and bores. Ground water can be contaminated by pollution leaching through the soil. Farmers are encouraged to manage amounts of potential contaminants applied to the land and to keep bore holes sealed so nothing can drop down into the underground water supply. 


The sinking of Tui.The sinking of the Tui was one example of an unusual coastal activity that needed a special resource consent before it could go ahead. Staff ensured any potential pollutants were removed properly before the vessel was sunk to become a diving attraction.
Monitoring resource consents and conditions is an important part of the Northland Regional Council's function. The Council has a large monitoring department that operates alongside that of consents.

Some companies conduct their own monitoring of emissions. These results are regularly audited by NRC staff. Monitoring is also conducted by staff outside the boundaries of factories to ensure consent conditions are being met. If problems are detected, a plan is negotiated with the factory owners. Fixing the problem might entail repairing equipment or installing more equipment to improve emissions.

Monitoring also helps NRC staff build up a picture of the state of the environment in Northland. Some records have now been kept for several years, which means they can see what effect any changes have had on the environment. This information is important to assess the future effectiveness of any Council policies and rules in improving environmental quality.

 Matapouri.Silt from a badly managed earthworks development spills into the sea at Matapouri. We have various special machines used to measure pollution. A special air quality machine used to measure particulate matter (extremely fine matter that is smaller than dust) is at the Robert St offices of the Council. This PM10 monitor collects data from the central city constantly, providing a good record of the state of the environment in that area where there is a concentration of traffic and buildings.

Another type of machine monitors carbon monoxide in the air. Carbon monoxide is produced by cars and interferes with the oxygen-carrying ability of blood cells in humans and animals. At times the carbon monoxide levels in Whangarei, Dargaville and Kaitaia exceeds the recommended guidelines.

Dust monitoring equipment is set up at Whangarei Airport, Onerahi and in Whangarei city. The information gathered from these machines now covers about five years of constant monitoring.

The Northland Regional Council has several ways of dealing with a pollution problem caused by businesses. If initial negotiations to fix a problem fail, the Council can issue an abatement notice which is like a formal warning. This has a time limit for fixing the problem. Abatement notices can be appealed.

Another option is infringement notices, which are like instant fines. These are mostly used in specific instances where there has been a deliberate act of littering or where, for example, dead animals have been put in a stream. 

Why should you care?

Pollution can affect your life and your safety. Contamination can make drinking water taste yucky, make a pretty place look ugly and stop you from being able to swim at your favourite beach.

Traffic is one of the biggest sources of air pollution. All motor vehicles produce gases that pollute the air. Older cars, poorly maintained cars and areas with heavy traffic cause most air pollution problems.

Air pollution can cause asthma or other lung problems in some people.

Illegal dumps and litter can be dangerous if you are playing nearby, with the risk of broken bottles and sharp metal pieces causing injury.

Many people use hazardous chemicals every day without thinking much about it. Common chemicals include paints, solvents, paint strippers, glues, garden chemicals and cleaning fluids. Many of these chemicals are poisonous, can catch fire or cause burns or react chemically. They should always be disposed of carefully. 

Importance to Māori

Clean water is an important resource to Māori, who value the mauri (life force) and wairua (spirit) of water bodies. Pollution of water degrades these values, as well as threatening the ability of Māori to gather kaimoana (seafood), which is an important part of their traditional diet.

Māori consider fresh water a lifegiving gift, and consider rivers and streams in a holistic way as part of the overall environment. To Māori, any discharge of pollution into water, no matter how well purified in a treatment process, reduces the water's ability to sustain life, degrading its mauri or life force. Environmental consultation with iwi is carried out in partnership with the Council under the Resource Management Act.


Northland Regional Council staff members are trained to help in emergencies. Emergency management ranges from monitoring staff testing at the site of an emergency to gather information to communications staff keeping the public and media informed during a crisis. In an environmental crisis the NRC works with District Council staff and emergency services. Staff practise what to do during an emergency, so they will be quick and efficient when a real environmental crisis occurs. The NRC urges Northlanders to be prepared for emergencies too. This helps reduce the risks to people and property.

Environmental hotline.We operate a 24-hour emergency hotline. The number is 0800 504-639.

The hotline operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is toll-free for reporting environmental incidents. There were 803 incident reports during 1999-2000, about 5% more than the year before. An average of 67 incidents was reported each month during the year. Environmental incidents are defined as instances of pollution (actual or potential) and unauthorised activities covered by the Resource Management Act 1991. Where Resource Consents were involved, only serious events outside of consent conditions were recorded as environmental incidents. 

Cleaner production

Kindergarten teachers outline their approach.Teachers Trudi Ruffiner of Kerikeri Kindergarten, left, and Louise Grant of Paihia/Waitangi Kindergarten outline an approach they developed for teaching pre-schoolers about rubbish through combining different subjects.

The Northland Regional Council can help businesses with waste minimisation programmes. The aim is to prevent the generation of waste at its source rather than having to control, treat or manage it afterwards.

Many Northland business enterprises that carry out successful waste minimisation programmes find they save money. At the same time they improve their environmental performance and comply with legislation. The NRC have guidelines for a number of industries including:



  • Boat yards
  • Service stations
  • Spray painters
  • Dairy farms
  • Commercial printers
  • Photographic processors
  • Manufacturing jewellers
  • Timber treatment plants

Find out more: Sustainable business

What can you do?

Refuse to buy packaging or products that add to pollution.
Reuse items as much as possible.
Recycle items, and use recycling centres.
Reduce waste.

Materials recycled to make paper.Jillian Cutforth of the Paper Mill shows how materials are recycled to make paper.











Here are some ideas:

  • Set up a recycling centre in your classroom and at home.
  • Make your own compost and keep a worm farm.
  • Choose products with less packaging.
  • Refuse plastic bags at the supermarket or shops. Reuse ones from home.
  • Don't litter. Wrappers from fast food packaging are a major source of litter. Keep a rubbish bag in the car to take rubbish home with you.
  • Take care what you wash down sinks and into drains, or flush down toilets.
  • Read product labels to find out what you are buying.
  • Hazardous household chemicals should be used and disposed of with care. Always read the labels. Take unwanted hazardous chemicals to a special drop-off facility at your nearest refuse transfer station or landfill.
  • Plant trees, shrubs and grass along streams and rivers to act as a filter and reduce animal waste going into waterways.
  • Batteries from toys, cars and mobile phones leak heavy metals when they break down. Look out for landfill transfer stations where you can take car batteries for safe disposal. Collection places for other batteries are also being set up in many places.
  • Visit the Paper Mill south of Whangarei to see ideas for recycling. The Paper Mill uses old linen scraps and even pest plants in its paper products.
  • Phone the Northland Regional Council hotline in a pollution emergency.
  • Be alert.
  • Take action.

Sources: NRC staff, NRC Regional Policy Statement for Northland; Rio + 10 Community Programme resource pack; NRC Annual Environmental Monitoring Report 1999-2000.
Document date: June, 2001