Bungled sewage repair job pollutes Kaipara Harbour

Tonnes of sewage was needlessly allowed to flow into the Kaipara Harbour for days after Watercare failed to properly attend to burst pipes.

The Wellsford representative on the Rodney Local Board, Colin Smith, says the incident is symptomatic of more fundamental problems of mismanagement by Watercare and Auckland Council, and highlights the need for radical improvements to Wellsford’s crumbling water and wastewater infrastructure.  

Farmer Paul Shepherd alerted Watercare to problems when he noticed effluent pouring from a manhole and flooding a paddock he leases off SH1, near School Road.

Watercare responded within hours, but workers turned up with a 1-tonne and 3-tonne digger to uncover the faulty piping, when at least a 10-tonne digger was required.

“I said, ‘Is that what you are going to do the job with?’ and they said, ‘Yes’. I shook my head. I was flabbergasted,” Mr Shepherd says.

“It was like sending in a teaspoon to do a shovel’s job.”

Mr Shepherd says the diggers “scratched around”, but spent most of their time getting bogged down.

Meanwhile, sewage continued to flow into the paddock and from there into a creek and then into the harbour.  

Mr Shepherd put a call through to Watercare on a Tuesday (July 3). On Saturday, he received a call back asking if he knew where to find a bigger digger to move a stack of firewood that was in the way of the works.

Mr Shepherd said he could and he organised a 13-tonne digger from a local person for that afternoon.

The local not only shifted the wood, he also dug a trench ready for new pipes to be installed. A job which had taken days, and failed to be completed, was accomplished in three hours.

He says prior to the call, Watercare appeared to have no local knowledge on where an appropriate digger could be found and this is a major failing.

“There’s no local knowledge and they don’t want local knowledge, and they resist local input,” he says.

Mr Shepherd is also frustrated that apparently, no engineer with the right qualifications and experience was sent to assess the job at the beginning and secure appropriate equipment.

And he is appalled at what he sees as a double standard. If a farmer was polluting waterways at the same rate, he could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.

His sentiments are echoed by Colin Smith who says a farmer in such a situation would be “hanged, drawn and quartered.”

“And this is a typical example, again, of Council organisations not using local contractors in local areas like we used to do,” he says.

Mr Smith adds that the sewage spill highlights the fact that Wellsford’s water and wastewater infrastructure is “stuffed”.

“Pipes are blowing and bursting all the time now, and it’s getting worse. Council needs to put a management plan in place and it needs to start investing some money in Wellsford,” he says.

His concern is shared by Wellsford Fire Chief John Cowpland, who says water pressure in the town has been lowered so as not to overtax failing pipes. This could lead to serious problems if engines were called to put out a fire at, say, Wellsford School and could not access sufficient water quickly enough to extinguish the fire.

Watercare communications manager Rachel Hughes says Watercare agrees with Mr Shepherd that the wastewater overflow was handled poorly and apologised for the impact it had on the farmland he leases.

“We are extremely disappointed with our contractor who did not meet our performance expectations on this occasion. We can assure Mr Shepherd that the incident has prompted an internal review to reduce the likelihood of it happening again,” she says.

Watercare declined to comment on the allegations concerning Wellsford’s crumbling infrastructure or the fire risk associated with reduced water pressure.