MY OLD LAND’S A DUSTBIN
Residents accuse their council of dirt tricks
Four years ago New Plymouth District Council, in a joint venture with private enterprise, closed their six year old, pollution-causing transfer station at the city’s landfill and built a new one, just down the road. Residents nearby called it a cover up, to spread the dump operation either side of them, without consultation. This is the story of the Colson Road Landfill, as NEILL HUNTER reports.
Stories abound about landfills yet here is more to this one than just another ‘dump story’, it is about power-players, manoeuvrings, fairness, and pollution. New Plymouth has had more than its fair share of controversy lately with health scares over dioxin, controversy at nearby Waitara, and recently: a dodgy power company deal. Yet ask anyone living in the region and they will extol the virtues. At New Plymouth journalism school experts lectured students about the area’s uniqueness: the cleanest air in the southern hemisphere, exceptional natural water reservoirs, snow and surf less than an hour apart.
On a nearby snow-caked mountain the multitude of rivers, streams and creeks spread like a never ending cobweb of crystal clear veins, beyond the ring plain. The quality of these waterways, near a landfill on Colson Rd, is Taranaki Regional Council’s (TRC) responsibility. Rate payers next to the landfill, are New Plymouth District Council’s (NPDC) responsibility, which is how this story begins and ends, with neighbours, and water.
Research for the story began in 2001 and ranged from Whangarei to Christchurch. It confirmed that New Plymouth wasn’t alone in ‘bad tip’ history. Councils break rules. A recent investigation for example by Waikato Times journalist Simon O’Rourke exposed multiple compliance breaches by councils in his region.
Originally designated a refuse site in 1974, New Plymouth’s landfill is situated in 8.5 hectares of rural valley, near the suburbs of Fitzroy and Glen Avon, nestled amongst farmland and streams about 4km from the city centre. Access is via the quiet rural lane of Colson Rd, barely one kilometre long and bearing no hint of controversy. Zoned both industrial and rural, Colson Rd has some nine immediate dump neighbours. Among the inhabitants are a small ostrich farm, plant nursery and domestic residences. The notion that there is a landfill here could escape the visitor, were it not for the odd sign. Certainly that was the impression this journalist formed on a first visit, wondering, was this the wrong road to the dump? At the end, before the trees which hide the dump from view, the RSPCA have their sanctuary for the lost, injured and abused. In 2001 the neighbours counted themselves as abused, after a new transfer station got added to their quiet rural sanctuary but, unlike the animals, they could only run to the people both charged with their care, and at the centre of the abuse. And in 2004, abuse of Taranaki’s clean water, got a little bit worse.
But first, a little history. Cut to 1996 and an Environment Court Judge told New Plymouth District Council to be more realistic towards its neighbours and on page eight of the judge’s decision, said “get approval first”. Neighbourly relations, approval, such small things.
The tenacious battler who once led the fight to improve things for the neighbours is small in stature – Kathy Lovell describes herself as ‘five foot nothing,’ then hands over a box. “Here, you can have my whole file. I won’t be needing it.” The teacher was relinquishing everything she had fought for, over a landfill. While ostriches walked nonchalantly about her farm, a warm wintry sun shone on a rustic, timber home built by Kathy and her partner, from timber they milled themselves in this quiet place. No hint of the rumblings of machinery in a landfill next door, or of discontent.
Kathy Lovell is an athlete. The 47 year old winner of countless marathons, national kayaking events, to name a few, when first interviewed was about to leave for Malaysia’s ‘new airport city’ to teach Asians English and sport.
And so began a long investigation, of laborious hours examining documents from a cardboard box, searching mounds of files in council offices, attempts to get more by Official Information Act, and countless interviews, all for the sake of a small story, about the small things, at Colson Rd.
In 1999, the Environment Court moved to protect things small around New Plymouth’s landfill, especially the neighbours, the “sacrificial lambs”. Operations at Colson Rd Landfill, as it is officially titled, should be strictly controlled,the court said. “We accept the landfill is now under the control of the council (previously under control of a contractor) but we are still extremely concerned that after the 1987 hearing the council still appears prepared to operate the tip with financial expenditure considerations to the forefront and the environmental concerns of the neighbours subservient to the economic pressure of ratepayers. We make it clear that if the council wishes to operate a landfill in proximity to neighbours then those neighbours are not to become the sacrificial lamb to the ratepayer population in general.”Records showed the old tip was plagued with problems: “Colson landfill has had a chequered history….operation has from time to time infringed conditions of consent…concern with recent operations of the landfill caused by inexperienced landfill contractors…we record without any hesitation that the City Council cannot expect neighbours to suffer the effects of a learning curve if that results in environmental degradation….affected by slack landfill management…”
To be fair, the council did dispense with a contractor at the tip who was being blamed for problems. But, that did not satisfy the court with its aforementioned warning about putting “financial expenditure considerations to the forefront and the environmental concerns of neighbours subservient to the economic pressure of ratepayers…”
“We are perfectly satisfied from the evidence,” continued the court, “…the number of incidents were greatly in excess of those recorded. …The question of poor historical management and construction practices certainly have put the tribunal on alert …We accept that the council have not been able to control flying rubbish, gases, or dust…
One aspect which appears difficult to control is the question of odour, particularly in the evenings where there may be temperature inversions…”
In March 1999 a frustrated Environment Court stated in key words: “the airing of concerns of the neighbours to the Colson Rd landfill and to ensure that the landfill’s neighbours are kept abreast of the development of the landfill site…” In other words, liaise with your neighbours. Subsequently NPDC took the initiative and established the Landfill Liaison Committee. It was more than a name. It formed an integral part of a much greater process, including a management plan. In 1999 an application by the council to change the landfill operation included conditions relating to community liaison. The committee was required to meet at least every two months.
The management plan emphasised a co-operative approach. Other documents examined on council files also referred to the plan. One said: the ‘Plan forms the bottom line.’ But like the bottom of an old transfer station, best laid plans leak, and the victims here were the little stream called the Puremu, beside the landfill, and the neighbours. But, like the Puremu’s once pristine waters, the council’s track record of keeping its neighbours informed became a little muddy. During an important period when liaison should have worked, the liaison group minutes were not distributed. This at a time of apparent behind the scenes activity over the then secret, proposed new transfer station site. The council blamed the neighbours’ representatives on the committee, who may or may not have heard what council staff were saying, and did not ask the right questions. That was one perspective. To those most affected by the station’s location, not sending out the minutes was like rubbing leachate into the wound. Things became septic. The council apologised and said it was due to staff shortages, the minutes were only sent to those who wanted them. That was contrary to rules. All the neighbours were supposed to receive the minutes.
Then, when no meetings at all were held, or called, like snow on a spring Mt Taranaki, the council’s defence began to melt. During another critical part of the process, there was a huge gap of six months between the normal two-monthly meetings.
Enter the woman unafraid of challenges, or their size, who began to fight. Kathy Lovell fired her first salvo at the frequency of the meetings: “They seem to stretch it out four or five months apart.” She alleged that this was to lay a smoke screen over the issue of the transfer station location. Then in a meeting in February 2001 it “was absolutely glossed over.” She says that by the time the mayor was about to sign the contract for the station it was a done deal and none of the residents knew about it. Colson Road was never discussed or considered as a location. On the last day of February 2001, Lovell wrote to the mayor complaining that the location of the proposed transfer station was never mentioned except as being on the landfill itself. There was no reply. Lovell conceded there was also talk of another site but that was completely remote, at another, remote, industrial zone.
The liaison group’s role was clear. In July 1999 NPDC had circulated the group’s main functions: “Disseminate information concerning the operations and the proposed development of the landfill, to hear concerns of residents and to discuss ways of alleviating those concerns…The subjects discussed by the committee will be those matters that are of interest to local people and interested parties.” Those were good intentions, but when it came to its first real test, the good intentions decomposed under the heat of big business interests and ‘commercial sensitivity,’ over a new transfer station site.
It is one thing keeping your neighbours informed, it is another not to do it on the grounds of “commercial sensitivity”, a one-phrase-fits-all. That was the reason, the council said, they could not tell their neighbours they were going to move a transfer station from inside the landfill, to the other side of the neighbours. Most believed that a new station was going to be built on another part of the landfill. They had good reason. A search of NPDC records showed a consultants plan for a new station well inside the landfill. So when NPDC finalised a deal for a new station beside the neighbours without consulting them, there was pandemonium. Public meetings and protests ensured, with ugly scenes of abuse against council staff. Local media went front page with a lead story and pictures of angry neighbours. But no investigation and when this journalist began enquiring, veiled intimidation followed from council staff, such as: ‘I suggest you get legal opinion before you make any allegations in that area and I’d get a specialist planning lawyer as well…neighbours are complaining about your enquiries…” and this pearl: “he’s a sh** stirrer.”
The council tried to pacify with “commercial sensitivity,” and the successful tenderer’s “need for confidentiality.” The tenderers had selected the site, said the council and if other tenderers had got wind of the strategically important location, next to rail yards and a possible future rubbish transporter (rail), their position could have been compromised.
Tranz Rail owned the land where the site was located.
Lovell: ‘A while back there was talk about railroading the waste to Hamilton. They are in a pretty good position to do that.’ She accused the council of conveniently using ‘commercial sensitivity’. The council said it wasn’t up to them to specify where the station should be built. It was entirely over to the tenderers. Theoretically it could be built anywhere in New Plymouth, the choice was up to the tenderers.
Let’s examine that: For years the old landfill operated without any transfer station. People simply turned up and dumped their rubbish at the tip face. Neil Fagan, New Plymouth District Council’s management services engineer puts it succinctly: “Previously it was dig a hole and put stuff into it and make sure someone shoots the rats.”
Then the council built their first transfer station at the landfill, just inside the gate. As transfer stations went, it was ugly. In fact to those accustomed to places where you pull up and off load into bins, gleefully smash bottles into appropriate receptacles amid self doubts of green or brown glass, throw cardboard onto overfilled containers then move on to other Saturday ventures, it was disappointing. In 2000 this journalist proudly took his first load of rubbish to the New Plymouth dump and had a transfer station experience. Long before any controversy, I broke the dump rules by merrily driving straight past the so called transfer station, followed a dirty dusty road up and over a hill and dumped my refuse at a tip face. Upon returning I noticed a place for recyclables, stopped and off loaded empties. A dump guy approached and said, ‘first time here?’ ‘Yep,’ I replied. Then he politely and patiently explained the rules. I stared blankly, between him, a hole in the ground, and a jumble yard, he called a transfer station.
I watched those who didn’t need polite instruction, deposit their rubbish into the trench in the ground and throw their empties into an assortment of messy cages, bins, and old containers. I was expertly told that at the end of the day, the refuse in the hole would be scooped out and taken to the tip face. All this, for a city’s refuse.
The point however, was not the quality of the six year old transfer station, but the fact that it formed an integral part of the dump operation, as ordered by the environment court, and that it was within the dump boundary. The council’s own plans, as well as Resource Management Act (RMA) application documentation showed the location: inside the landfill. The council defence to this apparent sleight of hand: The documents were like any other permit, anybody applying to build something was not compelled to proceed. If the council decided to build it on railways land, near the neighbours, where no permit was required, that was council’s choice. The suggestion here: the permit issue related not to building standards, but environment issues, including nuisance. Enter Taranaki Regional Council (TRC).
In March 2001 TRC wrote to Kathy Lovell, saying no permit was needed provided there was no dust, noxious or toxic levels of airborne contaminants. Was that the same as saying, ‘you don’t need a permit to build a house unless it might fall over?’ Choice was a privilege the council seemed to enjoy, and the neighbours lacked.
Enter Manawatu Waste. They operated a transfer station in Palmerston North, were experienced players in waste management, and they knew how to tickle the taste buds of the council. As tenderers they selected a proposed site, part of railways land on the other side of the neighbours. When NPDC heard of the idea, they were ecstatic. Neil Fagan said he wished that he had been able to grab the railway site for council’s own purposes. So they did. They bought the site lease.
The deal became one where Manawatu Waste leased the whole operation off the council. The wheels of big business went into top gear, all to the ignorance of the neighbours. Lovell believed the railways deal may have even been signed a lot earlier, “the guy from the railways was overseas,’ she said.
The defence of commercial sensitivity appeared to crumble further when the council entered the arena of literally buying up the whole proposal, lock stock and barrel, leasing the railways land, paying for and owning the station then leasing it all back to private enterprise. Further more it smacked of back room deals at the expense of court imposed neighbourly relations.
Questions also arose over whether or not the council appeared to be calling tenders for the construction of a business (transfer station) then helping the successful tenderer set up that business by becoming the leaseholder. Kathy Lovell claims the council effectively subsidised Manawatu Waste to set up business. Another source, already involved in transfer stations, said the council didn’t pay them to set up their business. “The council paid for it (new transfer station) before it was set up,” The source said of Manawatu Waste’s proposal. “If you want to start a business, is the council going to pay for the land and the buildings and set it all up for you?” NPDC deny any wrong doing. They say they did everything they could to inform the neighbours, once commercial sensitivity was over. A town planner also said New Plymouth District Council did not need permission legally for the transfer station, but chose to include the public anyway. Well, seemed someone forgot to explain the term inclusion, to the neighbours.
Lovell points to the arrogance of the council whom she says tried to claim credit for setting up a public meeting once the location was divulged. “I phoned around all the residents to see if they had heard anything (about the location). I rang up Neil Fagan and he said ‘sounds like I need to do some damage control here, perhaps I should call a meeting.’ ” She says if she hadn’t “called around the residents there would never have been a meeting.”
The council says it was a balancing act between being good neighbours and trying to keep everyone happy. That seemed to ring hollow when one council staffer said: ‘why should the rest of New Plymouth suffer because of a few?’ An environment court had earlier disagreed, referring to the need to prevent the neighbours from becoming scapegoats. “Sacrificial lamb” was another term used. Sacrifice: often a small burnt offering. The ancient Hebrews sometimes did it after a victory. Once, someone small won a battle, a shepherd boy named David. When he felled Goliath with a single stone to the head, the giant stayed down, and out. Then again David had it easy. One fight, done. Kathy Lovell’s giant went down but her battle was far from over, the giant kept getting back up.
She points to the fact the council were heavily criticised by the courts over their handling of previous landfill cases. “They got their hands well and truly smacked over their dealings with us, by the Environment Court the last time. We were not to be made a scapegoat.” She quotes the courts again: “Judge Treadwell says, ‘the question of whether an extension to the destination is contrary to actual assurances given to residents when the landfill was originally established is of concern to this tribunal.’ ”Given this track record of scathing court commentary, small wonder the neighbours cried foul, at the explanation of “commercial sensitivity.”
Allegations of a cover up by council to get their new transfer station with as little fuss as possible seemed to take on substance in the face of a statement from anonymous sources. They saw contract documents early in the process and alleged the contract for the new transfer station was virtually a done deal, before the council were forced to tell its neighbours. “I rang the council and they said no plans had been submitted to anybody, yet that same morning there were plans out for pricing for the transfer station.” They spoke to council staff and asked if any plans had been submitted and were told, “ ‘oh no, no.’ So I said why are their plans at my place of work for pricing?” He said ‘who are they for?’ I said X, and there was silence on the end of the phone. Obviously I had tripped him up.”
They thought it was deception by NPDC “because in the original draft for Colson Rd Landfill the transfer station was going to go up at the landfill. Instead of car traffic we are going to get truck traffic. Just imagine the price of our property, will be worth nothing.” The council denied any intent to deceive.
Time to examine more closely the time line leading to the station’s site selection. The history as far as the liaison group is concerned is this: In June 2000, the contractor for the new station was selected. There was no mention of a site to the liaison group; no further details were given to the group, which begs the question: why was it still commercially sensitive if the contractor had already been
selected? The lease for the new transfer station deal had not been signed. Contractor selected, but no site. In September 2000 the liaison group met and there was mention of difficulties about signing a lease arrangement. The significance of this was lost on the neighbour’s delegates. Three months after selecting the contractor, the location surely was no longer commercially sensitive. Still details were withheld. Why? The people at railways, required to sign the lease, were unavailable. And of course once the lease is signed it is a done deal. The council wanted the site secured before they alerted their neighbours to the location.
At the September 2000 meeting, there was no mention of which lease or where. Nothing to alert the very people that the council is charged to liaise with. Certainly there was nothing to suggest a new transfer station being built ‘next door’ or splitting the dump operation into straddling the neighbours.
NPDC seemed to adopt an inclusion policy only when convenient. For example, April 1999, they wrote to the neighbours: “Dear neighbour, Transfer Station Near Main Gate. …it is possible to vary the resource consent without formal hearings if the written consent given by …” Here they were happy to include the neighbours in an operational matter (for the previous transfer station), but not in 2000.
On 22 February 2001 “commercial sensitivity” ended. The council, at a liaison group meeting, announced that the tenderer for the new transfer station had identified the site, explaining that the tenderer did not want to tell anyone about the location until agreement was reached on the site land. The land, that is, leased by the council.
Were the neighbours lulled into apathy? They seemed to drift into accepting that the dump operation was going to change by virtue of the transfer station possibly being built in another area, outside the landfill, or so some thought. But, it wasn’t until it was ‘next door’ that reality hit. So what? If some had accepted that a new transfer station was going to be built outside the landfill anyway, did it matter where it was going to be built? Therein lies another story about noise, traffic, litter, dust and other nuisances, too much for one story. Perhaps it depended upon definition. Were landfills and transfer stations both dumps? Not so on both counts said NPDC. Dumps once came under Health authorities but now those authorities are only involved in waste if it is collected and disposed. Transfer stations do not need to be licensed under the Health Act because they do not “collect and dispose.” You read correctly. A transfer station is not an offensive trade under the Health Act, because it does not collect and dispose waste. Certainly the station receives waste but that is different from collecting it. Certainly it then transfers it to a landfill, but that is different from disposing of it.
And permits? Well, NPDC are police, judge and jury. The new transfer station was outside the landfill, no permit required. Why? Because it is all a question of town planning zones, two– rural and industrial, and the twain shall meet, at Colson Rd. In planning jargon the place is called: interface. Here, the mystery for the neighbours both deepens, yet sheds light. The new transfer station is in the industrial zone and transfers refuse to the landfill – in the rural zone. Between the two, for a half km, are the neighbours, at the interface. And it is a case of what comes out must not go in. NPDC’s engineer Neil Fagan saw no problem over planning rules. The new station is in the industrial zone, with fewer rules than where it was previously, at the landfill which is rural and falls under the Resource Management Act. For example there was no rule regarding traffic. In rural zone, things like management plans and all manner of rules, including: consultation, abound. A transfer station outside the landfill and beyond the rural zone was not so shackled. Or so it would seem.
When we spoke, Fagan agreed that where something was built on a boundary between two zones, “the rules are slightly changed.” He said that the effect outside the boundary could only be the effect that it was allowed in the zone outside. For example, “the noise in an industrial zone must be reduced by the time it reaches the next zone.”
Ralph Broad, senior planner for NPDC, with 30 years experience, says the issues between the two zones are not simple. But he agrees on one thing, the link between the transfer station and the landfill was like an umbilical cord. And nobody could deny that in its embryo stage, the station would belong to the landfill, owed its birth to the landfill, and the baby could not survive without it, without being breast fed by a mother of a landfill. Unlike the newborn, this baby needed to keep its cord, the only cut would be to an opening ceremony ribbon. To suggest it was not bound to the landfill rules was perhaps suggesting the newborn infant was not linked to its mother, or parental rules. Without the rules, would the other kids on the block (the residents) get hurt?
At the beginning of this story, there was a reference to water and during the investigation, among the vast array of documentation, were found technical reports by TRC. And “technical” they were. Reading them was torture but the pain was nothing compared to the damage done to the small stream, by an old transfer station, called the Puremu,. Many years ago a biologist for the Taranaki Regional Council carrying out a routine examination of the Puremu discovered zinc and ammoniac traces. Mystified he went searching. The source was found: leachate.
Consequently the council essentially were ordered to build a new transfer station on the existing site of the landfill, within 18 months. This was the previous transfer station, completed in 1994. It had to be a full transfer station operation. It wasn’t, it was a pit, dug into the ground, near the landfill gate as described earlier. Only the ground was not what it seemed. The ground was old refuse. And old refuse was where the monster they call leachate lived and every time refuse was dug out of the pit, leachate was disturbed. And leachate has only one way to go: down, into the Puremu again.
TRC hierarchy denied during interviewing that the Puremu was poisoned. A slightly agitated senior TRC engineer emphatically refuted the suggestion. You decide. Here is the exact wording: “…the most notable of which was the continuing contamination of the Puremu Stream by leachate contaminated ground water flow.”
In 1994, an application by the NPDC under the RMA, for changes and discharges at the landfill said the Puremu would not be affected. A 1997-98 report said the stream was fine. A 98-99 report said it wasn’t and in 2000, it was contaminated by leachate.
And near the end of the TRC report “executive summary,” it said: “…source of the contamination is to be removed with the closure of the on site refuse tipping pit” — the old (1994) transfer station. There was no proof that both councils were in collusion. No proof, that the reason for the new transfer station to be built outside the landfill boundary was because, having poisoned the Puremu with the old transfer station, NPDC were breaking the law. Like a child caught raiding the cookie jar, quietly putting the lid back on, they ran out the gate and built a new one, beside the neighbours. Water can be synonymous with peace, which is all one neighbour wanted. Poignant words were found on one of many forms filled in by the neighbours: “The only quiet days of the year,” …they were words written in upper case by a Mr ‘R Philp,’ with a solid writing hand. His words were in reply to NPDC intentions (before the transfer station issue) of extending the landfill operating hours on holidays and weekends. Compared to comments written by other neighbours, Philp wrote in a short, simple style. Others wrote long, with explanations, of facts and reason. But not Russell Philp. His took up one line. Perhaps it was written on one of his only quiet days, taking time to fill in a yet another form. His words somehow resonated. Russell Philp said all he needed to say. Then he died a short time later, casualty of a work accident.
It is no accident that the tip face at Colson Rd keeps growing and expanding. Like lava spewing from a Taranaki mountain in a bygone era, consuming and cutting deeply everything in its path, forging a
new landscape. But like a passing volcanic era where life forms, flora and fauna replacing red rock and hissing sulphur, perhaps the land now enveloped by waste at Colson Rd will become scenic. How much fire, brimstone and the gnashing of teeth will continue, is anyone’s guess.I called at the brand new transfer station back in 2001, just before leaving town. There was much fanfare over its opening. All was shiny and new, new machines, new staff, people taking an interest. There were even staff showing visitors around and explaining how to use a new transfer station. The staff were vibrant, animated and enthusiastic. Someone almost ran up to me, to help unload my rubbish. This was service, with a smile.
I wandered around and was almost embraced again, by someone who seemed to be in charge this time, who led me around and explained things, eagerly.
Then he moved off, to operate one of the new machines, a natty little digger scampering around, the new dumping bay, a long shallow concrete affair. At the end was a huge concrete pit where a truck waited, below ground level. The natty wee digger was racing around again scooping up refuse and shovelling it off the edge of the bay, into the truck below. Men cheerfully smiled at me again and soon they were all off in the truck to take a load to the landfill.
I looked down into the concrete pit, below ground level, from where the truck had emerged. The clean, new concrete surfaces were already filling with remnants of litter, spilling from the bay above, some dropping between the lip and the top of the truck before it departed. And it was also finding its way into a large drain hole, at the bottom of the truck pit. Through the hole I could see the clear running water, of a stream.
Since leaving New Plymouth I have returned a number of times and usually I highlight it with a trip to the now, not so new, transfer station. Things have changed, since those mad heady, public relations filled days. The staff no longer beam happily at the visitor and nobody helps me unload. Things are looking more untidy with each visit, this is a place getting used, a lot. It is after all, a large city refuse transfer station. And it has been operating now, for more than four years.
The truck pit has become a very dirty, grimy, littered affair. The drain hole at the bottom is cluttered now, with rubbish. It’s hard to see the little stream, at the bottom of the pit with its long angulated, concrete ramp running down from the work area above, like a giant sluice, for the truck to climb out, with each new full load of rubbish.
I wonder if the council will fit a little fish emblem, at the bottom of the pit, at the end of the ramp, beside the drain hole, over the little stream, at a city refuse transfer station.