"Carelessness to a high degree."
That is how a lawyer has described the actions of an Eastern Bay of Plenty company that admitted discharging plastic contaminated wastewater into the Whakatāne River twice.
Whakatāne Mill Limited appeared in the Environment Court at Tauranga yesterday on two charges of discharging a contaminant, namely plastic, into water.
The Bay of Plenty Regional Council's Resource Management Act prosecution relates to the discharge of plastic into the Whakatane River from the defendant's pulp and paper mill on Mill Rd.
The plastics were found up to 1.5km downstream and cost Whakatāne Mill Limited $13,000 to clean up.
On two occasions between May 4 and September 2, 2021, wastewater contaminated with plastic was used during manufacturing at the mill's plant, according to a summary of facts.
As a result, plastic entered the mill's wastewater system and was discharged from an outlet pipe into the river.
The company had a resource consent to discharge treated wastewater from the mill to the river subject to strict conditions.
According to the summary the only controls in place to remove or separate plastics during processing were visual identification and manual removal.
Staff failed to identify and remove plastic contamination from the conveyer belt and at no stage did they check the area where the wastewater flowed into the river.
On May 4, 2021, a member of the public complained to the regional council's pollution hotline after seeing plastic contaminated "debris" spread over a 1km stretch of the river.
Two regional council compliance officers visited the boat ramp at the end of Elvers Rd about 1.7km downstream from the mill and scooped up some fragments.
The officers met with the company's duty shift engineer, inspected the plant's outfall chamber and clarifier and took samples containing plastic fragments.
The shift engineer told the officers that during a wastepaper run sometimes the bales of wastepaper could be contaminated with plastic, the summary said.
The shift engineer arranged for staff to deploy booms to try to contain the plastic fragments, while the officers inspected bales awaiting processing.
The inspection revealed a bale containing cardboard lined with a plastic layer and plastic in the trash shoot and a nearby bin.
The officers collected further samples from the river upstream and downstream of the mill's discharge outlet and attempted to clean up.
By that stage the tide had gone out, leaving a layer of plastic fragments on the exposed riverbank/boat ramp 1km downstream of the mill.
The next morning two council officers inspected the riverbanks and saw plastic fragments at the Elvers Rd boat ramps, attached to river structures, along the shoreline and floating in the river.
The officers told the mill to stop discharging. About 10.30am, the company shut down its operations.
The regional council with help from a team from the Whakatane District Council arranged to try to clean up the discharge. Whakatane Mill Ltd paid the $13,000 clean-up bill.
The company's own investigation identified the causes as plastics in new container clipping bales, inadequate screening and ineffective checks of the clarifier, effluent or outfall streams.
The mill took remedial steps including changing its raw material supplier, adding new information to its training manual and a new checklist for the treated effluent system.
However, a second discharge into the river took place around August 30, after the company started a new production run that contained paper-based products with plastic coatings.
Plastic fragments again passed into the wastewater treatment system.
On September 2, the regional council received a complaint about plastic fragments about 250 metres downstream from the mill.
The regional council's lawyer, Victoria Brewer, argued the mill should be fined $70,000 to $80,000 before credits for the guilty pleas and any mitigating factors. She described the offending as "carelessness to a high degree".
Brewer said the defendant had a resource consent to discharge wastewater into the river but there was a "very small margin" for error. The discharge area was about 80 metres upstream of where the river flows into the coastal marine area and was a habitat for migratory water birds including a breeding ground for banded dotterel.
It was also a whitebait spawning site, a significant habitat for trout and an area of spiritual and cultural significance to the people of Ngati Awa, she said.
Whakatane Mill's lawyer, Sarah Eveleigh, argued for a fine starting point of $40,000 saying the mill had taken significant steps to prevent future incidents.
She argued the defendant's culpability was significantly less than other RMA resource consent discharge cases. She said her client had promptly launched an investigation into its own systems and invested significantly in further risk reduction measures and also committed $1.1m to a new "drum screen" system due to be installed later this year.
Environment Court Judge David Kirkpatrick reserved his decision.