Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Sewage pipe the stinky elephant on the beach

Onehunga and Hillsborough have a big wastewater sewer running between the two bays. Photo / Janna Dixon
Onehunga and Hillsborough have a big wastewater sewer running between the two bays. Photo / Janna Dixon

Striving for that unique selling point that puts your city on the map is no bad thing. But we Aucklanders might have tried a little too hard in deciding to spend $28 million building a faux, white-sanded tropical beach, directly in the firing line of the overflow pipe for the big wastewater sewer running between Onehunga and Hillsborough.

Watercare Services assures me it's a well monitored and well-maintained outlet, which only erupts on to the foreshore about twice a year. Since Watercare was formed in 1994, there have been just 25 such episodes, the most recent, a 137-minute spillage, ten days ago. Which for the experts running a complex, citywide wastewater system, sounds pretty good. Every system in the world has such pressure relief points.

What's uniquely Auckland about this, is that the New Zealand Transport Agency, which is largely funding this project as a gesture of reparations for its destruction of the Onehunga foreshore over past decades, along with the old Auckland City Council, and the new Auckland Council, all failed to confront the incompatibility of a major sewage outfall - to say nothing of three major stormwater outflow pipes - being left to spill out on to the section of the foreshore they'd ear-marked as a new sandy playground.

Last week, the four planning commissioners considering the project sidestepped the issue too, ruling that as the environmental impact of the outflows on the harbour would remain the same, their hands were tied.

In granting the green light for the new beach, the best they could do was demand signs go up warning swimmers when the water gets too nasty.

All heart, council lawyers announced as a compromise that the closest of the four proposed new white sanded beaches would instead be covered with skin-cutting gravel and shell. This, they said, would deter people from the immediate area of the outflow. And, one guesses, ensure infection, for those who missed the message.

It's not as though these outlets are hard to find. The GIS Viewer on the Auckland Council home page has a map of every sewer and stormwater pipe in the city, including their overflow outlets.

The Onehunga Bay wastewater outlet is the relief valve for the Hillsborough pumping station 2 km away. It was installed there in 1962, the site chosen because then it was part of an industrial wasteland. There are similar outlets dotting both harbours. After the big storms 10 days ago, 16 other sites recorded overflows as well.

What seems so short-sighted here is that when $28 million is being spent trying to "restore" the environment and build a sandy pleasure park on what is now post-industrial tidal mudflats, no plans were made to divert the drains or extend them into the harbour. If you're doing up an old villa, the council expects you to sort out the leaky pipes. Why not a beach?

The commissioners' report highlights how, even though "rectification of the water quality" was not something they could address, it was the elephant in the room. Until it is addressed, "the project is potentially reduced to beautification and mainly land-based recreation." The public "will need to be warned whenever there is, or likely to be, a health risk from contact recreation ..."

Even a Council consultant, Sharon Tang said that as proposed, the project "is a major public health concern". Watercare Services operations manager for wastewater, Mark Bourne, echoed these concerns. "It is not prudent from a public health perspective to locate a beach and contact recreation area next to an overflow discharge structure." He said "the public should not be actively encouraged to have contact with coastal water in areas where discharges are likely to happen, even when the frequency of overflow events is low."

As a schoolboy, I earned pocket money picking tomatoes in a Mangere glasshouse. Biking across the old bridge in the early morning, the frothy blood-stained waters drifting down from the Otahuhu freezing works rivalled the colours of the sun-red clouds. The stench was awful. The rehabilitation of the harbour since then is something to celebrate. But there's still plenty to do. Ridding the Onehunga foreshore of the motorway is not going to happen. Felling the power pylon - if only.

The beach project though, was doable, and a gesture in the right direction. Well, it would have been, if someone had been serious about the pipes.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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