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Huge fine for dirty dairy farmers

Published: 4:52PM Wednesday April 21, 2010 Source: ONE News/NZPA

A Westland farming company has been hit with one of the largest fines in New Zealand for dirty dairying.

Potae and van der Poel Ltd was stung $120,000 on Tuesday for dairy effluent discharges, as a result of a West Coast Regional Council prosecution in court in Christchurch.

It is the largest fine given to a West Coast farmer.

Their defence Lawyer Brian Burke says the couple are in shock, but they accepts the decision and says the company will not appeal.

The company was issued with abatement notices two years ago for dairy effluent discharges from three of its seven farms at Whataroa, 114km southwest of Hokitika. Vickers Creek and tributaries of the Whataroa River were affected.

Effluent overflowed from ponds and saturated paddocks could not absorb the effluent coming out of the irrigators, leaving big puddles.

It leaked into a nearby creek and subsequently into the Whataroa River.

It happened on at least 45 occasions. However, the company did not comply with the abatement notices and the council took court action. It pleaded guilty to eight charges.

Regional council consents and compliance manager Colin Dall says Potae and van der Poel Ltd did not spend the money to have proper infrastructure in place and Judge Jane Borthwick told the court she considers the matter serious.

Borthwick said the systems to deal with effluent were and still remain inadequate and that she was not aware of a more serious case of effluent discharge in New Zealand.

The sharemilkers were dealt with separately but because of their inability to pay a fine, they each received sentences of 200 hours' community service.

"She (the judge) did an initial (fine) calculation, then pulled it back. The total was $120,000, the largest (farming) fine on the West Coast."

Potae said this morning her husband, Adrianus van der Poel, had farmed in the area for 25 years.

Burke says the couple had slowly added more farms since 1985 and now milked about 3000 cows in the Whataroa area.

"It was a family operation and it got too big to manage. They fully accept that they let themselves down and caused harm to the environment."

A consultant environmental engineer has been employed to put in systems to ensure it will never happen again, Burke says.

Although the couple are shocked at the size of the fine, they thank the court for pointing out their shortcomings and accept the decision, he says.

Regional council chairman Ross Scarlett, a dairy farmer from Karamea, says the council has always had a conciliatory policy and an unwritten "three strikes and you're out" rule.

"There comes a point where we have to take action. We're not a draconian council. But we have to protect the reputation of farmers, and society as a whole demands quite high standards."

The number of prosecutions for discharging effluent is on the rise and in the past few years they have skyrocketed to record levels.

Federated Farmers spokesman Willy Leferink says this case highlights the issue to farmers that they have to comply with the rules and regulations that are enforced on the farm.

Dall says two more West Coast prosecutions are pending, although court dates have not been set.

The company came to council attention because overflows from an effluent reservoir ran directly into a farm drain and on to Vickers Creek in high concentrations.

Also, a stormwater bypass was left open so effluent reached an unnamed tributary of the Whataroa River in high concentrations.

Earlier this week, Oceana Gold pleaded guilty to breaching its resource consent by discharging sediment into Devils Creek, Reefton, in another West Coast Regional Council prosecution.

The Australian gold miner was directed to meet with the council in a restorative justice conference to find a favourable solution. The council has said it wants the company to restore the creek, which was left lifeless as a result of sediment discharges.