Thursday, 29 January 2015 00:00

Judge tells industry to step up on environment education

Written by 
Sharemilker Bas Nelis. Sharemilker Bas Nelis.

In a controversial Waikato case, a judge has told the dairy industry to step up in on educating farmers about environmental responsibilities including disturbing stream beds.

 But DairyNZ argues it is already working hard to get information out, but every council having different rules does not help. And farmers face a “frustrating and challenging process” to get anything done, it says.

An environmentally aware Okoroire sharemilker, Bas Nelis, in December copped a hefty $16,875 from Environment Court Judge Melanie Harland for mistakes made in an environmental clean-up.

The Waikato Regional Council brought the prosecution but recommended conviction and discharge. But the judge imposed the fine because she said the sharemilker should have known better.

“I recognise that this decision in all likelihood will not be welcomed by all those in the dairy farming industry,” Judge Harland said when imposing the fine. But this needed to be balanced against community interest and fairness in Resource Management Act cases.

“While the (Waikato) regional council has indicated its willingness to assist in educating dairy farmers about its rules, ultimately it is the responsibility of those engage in the dairy industry to make themselves fully familiar with them,” Judge Harland said.

“There are a number of industry group who also could be actively involved assisting dairy farmers to become familiar with their obligations in relations to water bodies, be they in relation to effluent disposal and/or erosion/sediment controls, which are there to prevent man-made degradation of the environment, accepting that these things from time to time occur as a result of natural process.”

DairyNZ corporate communications manager, Bernie Walsh told Dairy News farmers are interacting with many different parts of a council to get something done and it can be a challenging and frustrating process.

DairyNZ is actively educating farmers and helping them understand regional council rules and requirements. “Farmers don’t always have the time to read and understand all the information they get through their letterbox,” she says. 

“We’re constantly working with regional councils on advising farmers and have been for a number of years. We publish numerous guides for farmers. The challenge is that we often have to produce many different versions of our guides because each region has slightly different requirements. It would be a lot easier to build awareness and understanding across all farmers if there was just one set of clear and simple rules.” 

She says DairyNZ has recently run EnviroReady workshops and regularly runs farmer awareness meetings in different regions to inform them about changing policy.  

“Our Sustainable Milk Plans help farmers get individually tailored advice on voluntary environmental actions for their farm. We’ve also helped with information on consenting processes  such as Waikato’s Variation 6, regional riparian planting and the Horizons’ One Plan. We’ve published a new guide to responsible dairy conversions for farmers. 

“We’ve created training and accreditation programmes for rural professionals – some in collaboration with regional councils to support farmers. All our resources are available online, and our website is easy to use and has up-to-date information. We’re also working on a new land management guide.” 

Walsh says it’s important that regional councils coordinate and align advice and information to farmers across all their different functions. 

“Farmers need clear, simple and easy to understand information. Maybe councils need to think outside the box about how they communicate complex issues to farmers effectively. It can take a lot of time and skill to interpret rules that are not written in plain English.”

Waikato Regional Councils chief executive Vaughan Payne says the council runs workshops and field days, often in partnership with industry groups like Dairy NZ and Fonterra. 

“By and large, we believe that most farmers are doing the right thing when it comes to getting consent and taking care not to damage the environment.

“The dairy industry has proactively got involved in high profile RMA matters such as effluent management, water allocation and so on.  They also put a lot of emphasis on riparian management so we will be discussing with industry reps that works should not be done in the beds of waterways and that sediment controls are needed on the banks of streams if earthworks are being done.”

Litigation sparks outrage

The case and the fine have caused outrage in the Waikato farming community including one councillor and Te Aroha dairy farmer Stu Husband planning community meetings to change Waikato Regional Council enforcement policy.

Community protest meetings were held even before the fine was imposed in December.

Politicians have also become involved with New Zealand First’s Richard Prosser telling Dairy News the council’s actions were process rather than outcome drive. “No one was looking and the big picture and saying well ok  - the digger might have scrapped up a stream bed but no one knew it was a stream bed because it was so overgrown.”

The sharemilker who was prosecuted, Bas Nelis, says he “has a lot of anger” about the way the council carried out the investigation including getting a search warrant even though the farm was cooperating.

However Judge Harland said in her judgment she gained the impression the council’s investigation officers had been unfairly criticised for their action in relation to the prosecution and she had heard the level of criticism was “unprecedented”.

Waikato Regional Council chief executive,Vaughan Payne, says the council is fully supportive of the kind of project involved in the prosecution. “We’ve always said it was the way in which the work was done that was the problem. As Judge Harland said in the sentencing decision: “...Restoration projects of this kind are to be encouraged, but that is
not to say that the projects of themselves justify water bodies being damaged in the process...” 

He now plans to set up a working party “to come up with suggestions for what the regional council needs to do to help build a positive and constructive relationship with farmers within the context of our role as a regulatory agency,” he says. 

“We are the only organisation with responsibility for sustainable management of natural resources. This means we can’t, and won’t, ignore actions that significantly damage our environment. Our aim is to work with farmers to make sure they know the rules and get the support and advice they need to look after land and water.”

He says there’s information on the regional council website for farmers that covers everything from the rules to the types of plants they might want to use in various environments. There’s also a free phone number 0800 800 401 for those who prefer to talk to someone about their project.

 

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