Having been immersed in North Shore City's sewage for the best part of 6 years while I was a councillor there, and having been involved as a commissioner consenting an extension to Watercare's current disposal to Pond 2 Landfill in the Manukau Harbour, I have learned a lot about what we do here in Auckland, and what they do in more civilised parts of the world.
The United Nations Environment Programme has spent time analysing this issue too. They have produced An Introductory Guide To Decision-Makers, entitled: Biosolids Management: An Environmentally Sound Approach for Managing Sewage Treatment Plant Sludge. The introduction to this guide is helpful and brief:
"...Throughout North America and Europe, the application of biosolids to land is continuing to increase. As shown in Table 1, current biosolids applications to agricultural land in Europe and North America has become significant.The problem for Watercare, and for Auckland, is that the Pond 2 Landfill in Manukau Harbour is filling up, and so Watercare applied for consent on 10 November 2008 to put Auckland's biosolids in a quarry on Puketutu Island in the Manukau harbour. There's been lots of news about this in NZ Herald, and there are other blogs of mine about it.
Although biosolids disposal in a landfill site is common, it should not be viewed as a long term solution. This option is considered to be environmentally beneficial only when such disposal includes methane gas recovery for application as a fuel. Modern landfills are complex and costly facilities to build and operate. They must be carefully engineered and monitored to ensure protection of both groundwater and surface water. In many locations, accessible, long-term landfill capacity is limited. Engineering and siting requirements can make the construction of new landfills prohibitively expensive. Most importantly, landfill disposal does not take advantage of the nutrient value and soil-building properties of biosolids, and takes up landfill space that can be better used for other materials. However, landfill is the unavoidable choice when municipal sludge is contaminated with industrial waste and municipal authorities are unable to monitor and control industrial discharges...."
Commissioners hearing the consent application declined it. Among their reasons were:
(a) There would be severe and irreversible adverse effects on the spiritual and cultural wellbeing and values of tangata whenua and their ancestral relationship with the island if this proposal was permitted to proceed;And so it goes on. Needless to say, Watercare has appealed this decision, and the matter is in front of the Environment Court. Mediation proceedings are underway...
(b) The proposal would have adverse effects on the natural character of the coastal environment and the cultural values of tangata whenua which are both matters of national importance of regional significance. These effects could not be adequately avoided, remedied or mitigated and in the case of iwi values would be irreversible;
(c) The properties of biosolids are far from favourable, and will restrict the landform to a very flat, distinctly unnatural appearance, with prolonged and intrusive aftercare likely to be required...
In the background there have been a number of curious games underway. One of these has the ARC taking over the Island when the quarry has been filled up, and turning it into a Regional Park. This suggestion has the ARC getting the park for nothing. There is a little conflict of interest of course - because it's the ARC that's one of the consenting authorities for Watercare's biosolids disposal application.
The other game is one between iwi and Watercare. ARC has been kept a little bit in the loop about this, and I understand Watercare wants to come and talk to us about their updated plan in a few weeks. However all of this is happening far below the public radar, and I think it stinks.
Watercare is acting independently, unaccountably, though it will argue it is acting in Auckland's best interests. Across Auckland there is enormous pressure to resolve outstanding court appeals and environment court proceedings. (I think that some of these have lingered far too long and lawyers have got rich out of delays in resolution.)
But is it right that the process of transition to one Auckland Council should mean that an issue like the long term management of Auckland's biosolids should be rushed through in a quick expedient settlement? I don't think so. I think we need to clean up our act, and this is the time to be doing it.
However, and this is the nub of this blog, on Thursday 15 April, 2010, Watercare Services Ltd, Te Kawerau Iwi Tribal Authority Incorporated, and Makaurau Marae maori Trust Incorporated (the parties) signed a document entitled Puketutu Island Heads of Agreement.
Among other things the parties agreed that:
- Puketutu Island is to be owned by Tangata Whenua;
- There will be an operating licence fee of $2 per tonne (plus GST if any) of biosolids placed there, for 30 years;
- The operating licence fee is to be ring-fenced for Tangata Whenua;
- Parties to agree that Environment Court appeals to be resolved by consent order...
Two dollars for every tonne of crap dumped there. A maori crap tax.