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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan - New Zealand Herald - Column

Environmental watchdog sorely needed

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The estuary after to the felling of mature trees.

Inconsistent council approach sending mixed messages to developers and communities.

There's something in the water at Auckland Council's planning department and it stinks. The council is meant to be a unitary territorial authority but its handling of regional council roles under the Resource Management Act is very much out of sync with its counterparts throughout the country.

Regional councils should be focused on water, soil, and air quality. Auckland Council's planning department is issuing resource consents for land use and subdivision, which is the role of district councils, but not adequately taking into account the effects on soil and water, which is the role of regional councils.

The estuary of the last remaining freshwater stream at the northern end of Snells Beach.

Places where the Auckland Council is allowing suburban expansion defies not only logic but also long-established planning and environmental practice.

Take, for instance, the "future growth areas" in the North Shore and Rodney. There are aquifers, puggy soils, and fragile coastal ecosystems. Head to any stream along the coast and it is often polluted with sediment run-off from nearby developments.

In other parts of the country where there is 800mm of average annual rainfall, the regional councils are strict about discharges into waterways. In some parts of Auckland where there is 1600mm of average annual rainfall, compliance officers are nonchalant.

A Wellington farmer who accidentally killed eels while clearing a blocked drain was prosecuted and fined nearly $40,000. Forestry contractors in Waikato, Otago, and the Bay of Plenty were prosecuted for polluting a freshwater steam with soil and debris. Recently, however, an Auckland Council compliance officer witnessed the destruction of mature coastal trees on land that is to become esplanade reserve. The work blocked and polluted the last freshwater stream in the area.

The compliance officer didn't consider the absence of sediment control barriers along the stream's bank, the digger tracks in the stream, or even the dead dotterel under his foot.

The strange thing is, due to the proximity of the trees to the stream, the council issued a non-notified land use resource consent to allow the felling of the trees. The consent required sediment barriers along the stream.

Local school kids erected hand-drawn signs along the banks of the stream asking people not to pollute the restored eel and whitebait spawning grounds. They spent hours unblocking the stream, hoping that their efforts weren't in vain.

Snells Beach pupils have erected signs along the banks of the stream warning of the risk of pollution at the site of the Boathouse Bay development.

There are several other nearby coastal subdivisions in Snells Beach that undertook extra measures to prevent run-off. What message does it send to developers and communities when there is such inconsistency?

Soil is like a sponge. It collects everything from decaying animals, diseases, petrochemicals, pesticides, plastics, and undissolved noxious material. Rain, wind, and gravity can sweep contaminants into the water table and into waterways.

Whitebait, eels, shellfish at beaches and mussel farms are the "canary in the mine". Fishing and swimming are often the next to be affected.

A small leak from a sewer pipe or the washing of paintbrushes near a drain can enter the food chain. Even micro-fibres from polar fleeces have been found in the stomachs of fish.

The greatest contributor to our landfills is construction waste. The disturbance to soil from subdivision earthworks is a major risk factor to water quality. Roads are effectively oil-contaminated sites.

The construction, farming, and forestry industries have gone to great lengths to clean up their act, setting in place industry best practice guidelines. The problem is that there isn't the consistency in how Auckland Council deals with rogue contractors.

What can work is sustained pressure on compliance officers. Report incidents online, attach photos of the pollution, and keep water samples. Keep councillors in the loop and make sure incidents are followed up.

The council needs to restore public confidence. Abatement notices and prosecutions should send a strong message to landowners, consent holders, and contractors to clean up their act.

Grant McLachlan is an environmental and infrastructure specialist.

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