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Smarter farming: Effluent management

A guide to managing effluent on NZ farms – damage to the environment, dealing with waste, dairy effluent, and the rules about effluent discharge

Much attention has been given to New Zealand’s clean green image, with vistas of snow-capped mountains, sparkling lakes, clean water, adn sweeping scenery. The reality, we are now being told, is that this is far from the truth. There is a serious threat to our environment from damage through dairying, freedom campers, urban run-off, adn tourism to name but a few. The question is who speaks for the environment, what is actually at threat, and whose job is it to protect it?

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Damage to the environment

Where your neighbour does something that affects your property directly or indirectly, you can take your neighbour to court to have them stop. If you have experienced loss or damage, you can also seek compensation.

The court process, however, can be long and costly. More pertinently, often the damage is to the environment, not to you directly. As a result, the effects are more widely felt and,
in the words of The Lorax, “Who speaks for the trees”?

The answer is the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA), which governs a multitude of situations, be it discharges to the environment, subdividing your backyard, developing a new suburb, or building a new undercover stadium.

In the case of discharges, the RMA provides protection for the land, water, and air; it is administered by the local territorial authorities or, more commonly described, regional and district councils.

The RMA provides mechanisms to enforce what each council will allow to be discharged in its respective area. These rules are encapsulated in each council’s regional or district plans, which set out the guidelines for development and operation in each area. The primary requirement is that every person has a duty to avoid, remedy, or mitigate adverse effect on the environment from an activity carried on by that person.

As you could expect, each council applies different approaches in their respective areas. Some require specific consents for certain activities, others allow that same activity without any form of issued consent. The similarity, however, is that the same rules and punishments are applied in the event of a breach of the rules, whether the activity being considered is consented or not.

Dealing with waste

The issues faced by farmers, and indeed all businesses, is the waste from their manufacturing processes. Practices of past years are no longer sustainable or viable.
The wholesale dumping of waste through discharges into waterways, burning, and/or burying can simply not continue.

Pollution of long-past industries remain that plague the current owner who finds that the residue from old tanalised timber treatment plants, the wholesale application of DDT
(used to treat grass grubs on farms) or underground fuel tanks have left an expensive legacy to remedy.

In order to deal with current breaches, the RMA has a ‘strict liability’ approach to accountability. In effect, if you cause a discharge you are held to be guilty, regardless of whether you intended to or not. You are liable for punishment unless you can explain the reason why your penalty should be reduced or, in legal terms, mitigated.

The process to deal with breaches is either by fine or court action. For the court, formal charges are laid and lawyers argue the circumstances and details at a court hearing.

Dairy effluent

A frequently reported example of an unlawful discharge is the escape of dairy effluent. With each milking cow producing about 70 litres of effluent a day, a dairy farmer faces a logistical nightmare in collecting and disposing of this waste. Unlike most business processes where there are usually efficiencies to be obtained in greater production, greater cow numbers only create a greater problem of disposal. There is no economy of scale.

Dairy farmers must ensure their effluent disposal system is sufficient for the task and that it does not cause ponding on paddocks or allow it to run off into creeks or waterways.

Effluent discharge must be well-controlled and the systems must be maintained. Farm staff must be vigilant and understand the importance of keeping the system operational and working properly.

Accidents do happen but, ultimately, the farmer is responsible for the discharges from their property and a breach of the RMA will be punished.

Had an accident with effluent?

The overriding requirement of the RMA is to ensure that an unlawful discharge must not occur. Systems to prevent breaches must be robust and have provisions in place for unexpected eventualities or failures.

Excess rain, power outages, and equipment failures in themselves are not unexpected, so failure to plan for such eventualities could leave you exposed. Accidents can and do happen, and the RMA provides defences in such circumstances.

It also considers whether the effects of a breach were adequately remedied or mitigated. Planning for the worst and being prepared for it is essential in order to minimise your liability. Seeking legal advice once you are aware that you may be facing prosecution is essential to ensure that you are thoroughly prepared.

Discharges from a neighbouring property

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It is likely that many discharges, which are of annoyance from a neighbour, could be a breach of the RMA or other statues or by-laws, such as noise, smells, and run-off. Raising

your concerns with your neighbour or council will ideally help to resolve your concerns.
If, however, this is unsuccessful, your lawyer will discuss the options available to you. As a last resort, the court process is always available to resolve your particular issue.

And finally

The obligation to care for the environment is one that is borne by us all. While dairy farmers stand in the spotlight, they do not bear the obligation or blame alone. As in all industries, one or two heavily publicised examples have tarnished the dairy sector.

Most farmers are acutely aware of their effluent discharge obligations, and the penalties for a deliberate or accidental breach, and they strive to act and react accordingly.

Know the rules about effluent discharge

It is essential that:

  • you know and understand the discharge rules applicable to your property,
  • what constitutes a breach and how it may arise on your farm,
  • what to do if a breach occurs,
  • what to do after a breach has occurred in order to mitigate its effects,
  • what are your reporting obligations, 
  • when, and how, do you report a breach, and 
  • when to seek legal advice.
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