HERE is “significant frustration” in the Southland rural business sector because of a perceived disparity in sentences handed out by the Environment Court, Southland Federated Farmers president Allan Baird says.
Mr Baird’s comment came after representatives from five Southland dairy farms, including Mr Baird, appeared before the Environment Court at the Invercargill District Court two weeks ago to answer charges of failing to comply with anti-pollution regulations set out in the Resource Management Act (RMA).
Mr Baird admitted to discharging dairy effluent on his farm on the Dipton-Winton highway in October last year, thereby polluting a tributary of the Winton Stream.
The case has been adjourned until December 4.
Mr Baird said the court experience had made him “more aware of the processes” and Federated Farmers wanted more consistency between how city and rural cases of pollution were tried.
“If a city has a discharge [of pollutants] through its stormwater drains, the prosecution process is quite different from what happens with farmers.”
The Invercargill City Council (ICC) had under-invested in stormwater drainage for the city, but the ICC was not being dealt with in the same way, he said.
“These tributaries running through the city have high levels of E. coli from sewage, not from farms,” Mr Baird said.
Farmers, on the other hand, could be charged even for a pool of stray effluent a few centimetres deep which collected in a hollow and which “may” enter waterways, he said.
In the past five to 10 years, farmers had been fined from $25,000 to $125,000 for RMA breaches, and the severity of the fines was increasing, he said.
“Farmers try their best, but accidents happen and large fines are the end result. I’ve talked to a number of farmers and they fear Environment Southland [ES] white trucks more than they fear their bank manager.”
ICC drainage and solid waste manager Malcolm Loan said compliance regulations for the council were also quite strict, but the E. coli levels in the rivers did not increase as the rivers flowed through the city.
“The rivers are not pure when they come into the city. From an E. coli point of view they are as bad when they enter the town as when they exit… It’s not that ES is unwilling [to prosecute the ICC], it’s because they haven’t got the evidence to do so.”
ES compliance manager Simon Mapp said cities held consents to discharge stormwater but sometimes cross-connections in older sewerage and stormwater pipes did result in E. coli entering the stormwater network.
Mr Mapp said the ICC’s consent required water sampling of rivers which the stormwater network connected to and if E. coli was found, the ICC must carry out an investigation.
If compliance levels were breached, the matter must be forwarded to the ES compliance team, he said.
However, Mr Baird said ES officers could enter a farm and carry out investigations at any time with little prior notice.
Mr Loan agreed the fines for farmers were “rather punitive”.
“The aim is to frighten people into compliance and I don’t think ES would disagree. Both urban and rural sectors are going to struggle in future with the harsh standards expected of us all.”