by Russel Norman
Yesterday (3-2-11) I rafted down the Tarawera River in the Bay of Plenty. As we came around a bend on the river we came across a series of large steel beams sticking out of the water - “The Taniwha of the Tarawera” muttered Tipene Marr stting next to me on the raft.
These steel posts anchor the discharge pipes for the Kawerau pulp and paper mills. A series of pipes run underwater, pumping out 30 tonnes a day of platinum cobalt (1) and god-knows-what, turning black what is usually a clear river upstream. It is the pollution coming out of these pipes that have given the Tarawera the nickname “The Black Drain”.
Most water pollution in NZ is diffuse agricultural pollution, so it’s rare to come across large industrial point-source pollution. As we floated above the discharge pipes in the raft it wasn’t hard to imagine the presence of a dark malign taniwha sitting below the surface spewing forth poison into the river.
A long struggle
I had started the day at a small hui down near the mouth of the Tarawera at Matata, meeting with David Potter from Ngati Rangitihi who, alongside Tipene Marr, has been struggling to clean up the Tarawera for years. They have just lost the latest Environment Court battle and are facing court costs. Green MP Catherine Delahunty had organised the meeting as she has been fighting to clean up the river for years.
The Environment Court has just ruled that Carter Holt Harvey and Norske Skog can continue to pour 30 tonnes of pollution per day into the Tarawera for another 25 years. This pollution began in 1955. Our resource management laws and courts are failing to protect our environment.
Because, according to the Enviro Court, the pollution causes ‘conspicuous change in the colour and visual clarity’ of the river, the Court could only grant the consents under the exceptional circumstances section 107 of the RMA. And basically the large amount of money involved in the mills was judged to make it an exceptional circumstance. So the mill owners won’t have to invest in technology to recycle and reuse the pollution, they can just keep using the river as a toxic waste disposal system.
Tipene came on the raft with us, starting above the discharge. The river had quite a lot of sediment in it, as the rains had washed the soil down from the forestry in the headwaters. So the water wasn’t really really clear as it often is upstream of the mill, and the colour change at the discharge point wasn’t marked as it usually is. Some members of the crew mischeviously suggested that the mill reduced the discharge for our trip – certainly they kept an eye on us with cameras and this is apparently the environment manager watching us.
There is a great little rapid just downstream of the put-in point near Waterhouse Street bridge in Kawerau and further down their were groups of locals enjoying the river (above the discharge).
Further downstream one of the striking aspects was the amount of industrial infrastructure on the river. Here’s one of the many pipes and roads that cross the river.
Below is the intake for the mill – they take on average 10% of the flow before contaminating it and putting it back into the river
This is the first river tour that left me with a headache, I guess from the constant chemical fumes.
There was also a lot of beauty – here are new terraces forming by the geothermal water flowing in from the Savage hotpools (which are quite awesome if you are ever in Kawerau – behind the mill).
It is important to note that the mill is not the only source of pollution in the river. There is also pollution from town sewerage and agriculture. Below you can just see the top of a dairy cow with unfenced access to the river.
And here the fence is left open at the river to allow stock access:
Why we need the NPS
The Court’s reasoning was also based on the old it’s-so-polluted-anyway-so-a-bit-more-won’t-matter-approach. They wrote that the effects of the pollution on aquatic life “are no more than minor when assessed against the range of natural and modified habitat factors and other water discharges affecting the Tarawera River.” They argued that the lower river had been significantly rechanneled, that there was a lot of agricultural pollution, and town sewerage.
This is all true. But it is also true that by this logic we will never clean up any river.
There is currently no legislative requirement to clean up rivers. The draft National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management that says you need to remove contaminants from rivers is sitting on Nick Smith’s desk while the polluters lobby for nothing to happen. This decision shows once again why we need the NPS.
Thanks to Bruce Webber from More Fun for organising the gear, and thanks to Babs and Alina.
(1) From Environment Court decision: ”  Mr Donald noted with regard to colour that Condition 7.3.3 of the 2003 consent allows the JV to discharge on average a Platinum Cobalt equivalent of 31 tonnes per day to the river. The decision of the Hearings Commissioners advocated an initial step down in the colour limit to 27 tonnes by 2018…”