Discharging farm effluent and silage leachate into tributaries of the Wairoa River at Ruawai has cost a Northland farming couple almost $70,000 in fines and court costs.
Mark Allen Stanaway and his wife Kylie Wendy Stanaway were sentenced recently in Whangarei after they had earlier pleaded guilty to a combined total of 16 charges.
Each had faced eight separate charges relating to dairy effluent discharges, a silage leachate discharge and breaching an abatement notice.
In a reserved decision delivered recently in Whangarei on his behalf, Environment Court Judge Laurie Newhook said the 2009 offending - which took place at the couple's Wallace Rd, Ruawai property - related to a "multiplicity of discharges and situations" and had been serious.
The offending took place between 22 August and 28 September 2009 and had been "deliberate, or if not deliberate, occasioned by a real want of care, associated with large plural discharges, and exposing a disregard for effects on the environment".
Judge Newhook said effluent and leachate had gone into tributaries of the Wairoa River, these ultimately discharging into the Kaipara Harbour about 12km downstream.
"The Kaipara Harbour is an important place ecologically in New Zealand, in particular providing nursery grounds for a very high percentage of the West Coast snapper fishery spawning."
The judge said evidence from a Northland Regional Council staff member had revealed that the discharges involved had been "for the most part toxic, and at best the environment was significantly impacted..."
Judge Newhook accepted a submission from the council's lawyer Karenza de Silva that like so many other dairy effluent prosecution cases, the Stanaways' offending was symptomatic of "death by 1000 cuts to the environment".
Ms de Silva said there had been a history of warnings over a number of years with the defendants receiving abatement and infringement notices at both of their farms in the area.
The judge found that while it had been suggested on behalf of the defendants that a farm manager prosecuted separately by the council had some culpability, "I found that the blame for the state of affairs leading to the charges must rest almost entirely with the Stanaways".
"...This was a classic situation of a farmer running a herd many times the size that the effluent system would cope with, and frankly all the other problems stemmed from that."
Sentencing the couple, Judge Newhook said all things considered, he believed a starting point for the fine should be a total of $100,000, however, he had discounted that by a third as a result of the couple's early guilty pleas.
Accordingly, between them they were fined $4187.50 on 16 charges, a total of $67,000. Court costs of $132.89 were also imposed on each charge, a combined total of $2126.24.
The judge directed 90 percent of the fines be paid to the Northland Regional Council and directed that the defendants be able to pay it in 12 equal monthly instalments.
Speaking after the sentencing, the regional council said the judge had once again sent a clear message to dairy farmers that protecting water quality is important and effluent needs to be treated and managed properly.
The council's Operations Director Tony Phipps says prosecution is a last resort for the regional council, which prefers education and working with farmers to address issues wherever possible, however, in cases like the Stanaways', it had little option.
He says there are a number of Northland farmers who could find themselves in a similar position if they continued to ignore warnings and abatement notices received over the last dairy season.