30 5 2020
The maintenance of sewerage systems has been thrust into the limelight recently.
In Wellington the number of complaints about sewage leaks and smells has increased since the 7.8-magnitude quake in Kaikōura. A recent tunnel collapse caused 2,500,000 litres of wastewater to spill into the harbour. Subsequently the entire network was said to need checking and further sections have been identified as needing urgent repair.
In Taupo, 190,000 litres of sewage spilled into the lake and entered the Waikato river. A break in a Morrinsville sewerage pipe caused 100,000 litres of sewage to drain into the Piako river over two days. The courts found council had failed to attend to the breach immediately, failed to train staff in emergency procedures and failed to get expert advice.
Raw sewage frequently spills into Auckland’s waterways and harbour. The breaches occur following as little as 5mm of rainfall and between 50-100 times a year. Residents frequently report putrid smells coming from sewage polluted streams and seeing dead eels and dying fish. Beaches are often closed because sewage containing bacteria, faeces and tampons has entered the harbour.
Sewerage pipes are coming to the end of their useful life throughout the country. Leaking or ruptured pipes and large sewage spills are becoming commonplace because councils are preferring to fund the more glamorous projects. Rotorua Lakes Council is spending $30 million on mountain biking facilities, $57 million on the lakefront redevelopment and $43 million on the airport business park and hangar. Under Mayor Steve Chadwick’s leadership the council has invested in a “mud festival”, commissioned art works, is renovating the council buildings, upgrading the theatre to world standards and rebuilding the museum. But, in spite of all this, it is putting very little towards replacing our old sewerage pipes. Now we are told it is a monumental task, it will be a monumental cost to the community and we are facing a large shock event – a spillage similar to Wellington or Auckland unless we contract out the maintenance of the system.
Rotorua network at its end of life
In the Rotorua district, 66 per cent of the 450km pipe network has reached its end of life expectation. The number of breaches including the collapse of pipes and sewage leaks into the environment is increasing. During the 2018 floods raw sewage flowed into homes, through manholes into streams and into the lake.
The good news is Government regulators are now requiring councils to address the pollution and health and safety risks posed by failing sewerage networks throughout the country.
These new regulations make the continuing management of the sewerage network increasingly onerous, so much so apparently that the RLC is opting to contract out sewage management to a consortium. One of the consortium partners is a Beijing based company that specialises in waste water systems. The 10-year contract has been written, and we are told due diligence has been undertaken, that there will be no surprises. This will cost ratepayers $156 million over 10 years, around $2 million more per year more than we currently pay.
The RLC’s reasons for contracting out the sewerage network include the difficulty complying with new government policies and regulations given the aged network.
There is concern that future extreme weather events will increase the risk of a breach and sewage spill and that the city’s future growth will increase demand leading to more complicated sewage treatment and management technology. The council says more than half the operational staff are near retirement age and employees with operational experience are hard to find.
A further concern is that a large sewage spill will have financial implications for ratepayers. Underscoring all these reasons is the shame and fear of public anger and retribution when our aged network finally breaks and millions of litres of raw sewage enter our streams and our lake. The first question that will be asked is “how?” The answer is “neglect”.
World-leading expertise here, now
New Zealand is on the verge of being a world leader in developing a vaccine to combat the COVID-19 virus. We have some of the best sports people, farmers, doctors, nurses and public health experts in the world. We have some of the best movie directors, the best researchers, teachers, artists, journalists and small businesses, some of the best technology and biotech companies. Why are we being told we can’t train more people in the operational management of sewage? Surely we can do this?
Of course Rotorua can but we must seriously address the backlog of poo in the system. The blockage has been caused by the council’s failure to fund this service adequately. While council staff and councillors have blithely spent on the lakefront upgrade, on biking in the forest and on the airport, they haven’t spent what the sewerage system needs to make it safe and reliable. They haven’t spent what they spend every year on sports and recreation or on sculptures, mud festivals and inner city cycleways.
Rotorua must retain our own expert operational sewerage staff and continue to keep our own network maintained. We must not rely on an overseas consortium but employ local people to train and undertake the maintenance of our sewage system. We must increase the budget for operational staff so they can do the job we expect and need them to do. We must start replacing our aging sewerage infrastructure before there is another pipe failure and another health and environmental disaster in New Zealand. Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said “We knew in 2013 we inherited a basket case and we were all very aware of that”. So what has she done but sweep it under the carpet, and leave the problem to another council to grapple with?
Trust at heart of scepticism
There is another reason why we should vigorously oppose RLC’s proposal that a consortium is contracted to maintain our sewerage network. It is called TRUST. Rotorua people have learned not to trust what our council tells us. They told us that building a dense housing development on a flood plain was a great idea, then within a month the floods came and they were proved wrong. The mayor didn’t back down, blaming Housing Minister Megan Woods for a bad decision to stop the project and for holding up desperately-needed housing in Rotorua.
There is also the parking skirmish where the RLC contracted out the city’s parking to an Auckland firm. The system and parking meters are complicated and confusing, parking meters frequently don’t work, don’t take a cash card, have caused immense frustration and require a full-time staffer to talk to angry complainants.
The council’s response was then to deny the problem and refer the complainants to our court system. Most judgements were found in favour of the complainant but the council persists with the parking meter fiasco.
If the same problems arise with the proposed sewerage contractor and the RLC acts in the same way to settle the dispute in court, ratepayers will find the cost of contracting out this service is much more than was expected. If they are true to form, the RLC will not release to the public the legal costs involved. We are still waiting to hear what the legal costs are in relation to other long running court disputes. We only know they are millions over budget.
Have your say
Will future sewage spillages dump bacteria, urine, faeces and tampons into our waterways? Will polluted waterways kill off our remaining native fish species? Rotorua must remain in charge of our sewerage system and demand council fund it appropriately in future.
Surely we can do this and surely, when unemployment is rapidly growing in Rotorua, it is our responsibility to train and employ local people.
Rotorua Lakes Council is asking the community for feedback on contracting out the sewage and sewerage network to a private consortium. Please make sure you have your say.