NZ Farmer - Taranaki farmer fined $35k for unlawful discharge into stream

A Taranaki farmer has been fined $35,000 after 150,000 litres of partly treated dairy effluent was illegally discharged into a highly prized stream.

Warren Frederick Gill, who lives on and manages a 200 hectare Upper Lepper Rd farm in Inglewood, previously pleaded guilty to one charge of discharging contaminants into water, a breach of the Resource Management Act.

The offending, which carries a maximum penalty of two years' jail or a $300,000 fine, was discovered after a Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) inspector was visiting a property next to Gill on March 7.  Gill's farm is owned by a family trust and is known as Sandstone Farms.

On Monday, the Environment Court at New Plymouth heard how the inspector noticed a section of the Waiongana Stream was smelly and "running green".

The waterway is categorised by TRC as a "first order" stream which has high ecological and recreational value.

The summary of facts outlined how the find prompted the inspector to investigate the source of the problem and he visited Sandstone Farms about 11.10am.

The inspector spoke to Gill and then looked at the farm's dairy effluent system, where he noticed the second pond had filled to a higher than usual level as a result of a blocked pipe between it and the third pond.  

He assessed that a sudden release of a large volume of effluent from the second pond resulted in a swift discharge from the third down the 30 metre drain. 

The effluent flowed along the drain, with some being discharged directly into a tributary and some going over a bank and into the tributary.

"There was significant foaming at the point of discharge into the tributary and discoloration and odour for approximately 400 metres downstream of the point of discharge."

TRC estimated approximately 150,000 litres of partially treated dairy effluent was discharged over a seven hour period.  

At the time of the breach, approximately 400 cows were being milked twice a day in a rotary dairy shed on the farm.

Sandstone Farms has held a consent to discharge treated dairy effluent into an unnamed tributary of the Waiongana Stream since April 2002. 

While Gill had never been prosecuted before during his 18 years as a farmer, an abatement notice was served on him in 2010 for a previous issue with effluent discharge on the farm, which was subsequently complied with.

Karenza de Silva, on behalf of TRC, sought a fine of $80,000 as a starting point for the offending, which she argued bordered on being "deliberate". As a result of what happened the waterway had become "highly toxic".

"The discharge was forseeable and could have been avoided," de Silva said.

Gill's lawyer, Eleanor Connole, countered this by saying her client had taken immediate action to correct the problem when it was brought to his attention, including paying for professional assistance to cut down vegetation in the surrounding area.  

She said $60,000 was an appropriate starting point, which reflected the breach had been a result of carelessness rather than any deliberate action on Gill's part.

Connole said Gill's conduct after the discharge was discovered needed to be taken into account and he had done what he could to put things right.

She said it had also been Gill's practice to check the effluent  ponds every day and this breach had coincided with unexpected time away from the farm, when he was in hospital receiving medical care.

Judge Craig Thompson said it appeared the pipe had been blocked by leaf matter and pine needles from nearby vegetation but added it was "too harsh" to say what happened was the result of any deliberate action on Gill's part.

Once Gill was made aware of the problem he took "immediate" steps to fix the issue, the judge said.

After setting a $60,000 starting point, the judge reduced this by 25 per cent, to reflect a full credit for Gill's guilty plea which came at the earliest opportunity.

A further 10 per cent reduction was given to take into account the defendant's personal circumstances.

Gill was fined $35,000, 90 per cent of which would be paid to TRC.