A judge has reserved their decision regarding the sentencing of Hastings District Council (HDC) in relation to the Whakatu wastewater spill on June 23, 2022.

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council prosecuted HDC in relation to the wastewater spill. A Hastings District Council spokesperson said, “The Regional Council has a responsibility to exercise its powers and the council pleaded guilty at the first opportunity.”

Post the spill HDC requested an independent review of the incident, with the report published in September the same year. The review, supplied to BayBuzz, addressed how the spill happened, the response to the spill by council staff and contractors, the clean-up of the spill, and recommendations to address shortfalls (if any) and to reduce the risks of a similar event in the future.

A Hastings District Council spokesperson told BayBuzz the report did not reflect the court’s view of what happened and who was responsible. “The judge reserved their decision and will issue it in writing in due course,” they said.

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council declined to comment until the sentencing decision was released.

The incident on June 23, 2022, occurred when power outage interrupted a routine wastewater flushing operation, disabling the automatic gate function, resulting in a wastewater overflow on State 51, near Whakatu.

As soon as the waste team was alerted to the overflow, just after midday, the gate was opened manually. The overflow ceased at 12.45pm. It was estimated that about 200 cubic metres of wastewater spilled onto the road and into the adjacent rural drain. The road was immediately closed, and traffic diverted through Whakatū, and the clean-up of the road started. Vacuum trucks were used to remove the debris, and then the road was washed and disinfected so it could be reopened at 5pm.

At the time, Hastings District Council chief executive Nigel Bickle acknowledged that this should not have happened and apologised to the community.

“This is a serious matter. Our immediate focus has been on responding to the incident. Next week, I will be commissioning an independent review into the incident to understand how it happened and I will be expecting recommendations to ensure events such as this cannot happen again. The report and its findings will be made public.”

At the time Hastings District Council notified Hawke’s Bay District Health Board, and as a precaution Council asked the public to avoid Muddy Creek and the Clive River mouth, including for food collection.

Regarding the spill response from both council and main contractor (Fulton Hogan), the review found both responded appropriately with urgency when notified of the spill. It also found all management decision making and communication between HDC staff, contractors and HBRC staff during the response to the spill was ‘well-coordinated’ and calmly implemented.

Post event investigations into the nature of the power outage which interrupted the routine wastewater flushing operation, identified the power outage was due to planned works on the Richmond Road overhead powerlines. A power outage notification was received by HDC prior to the power outage and not acted upon.

Investigations into the council’s supervisory data control and acquisition system (SCADA) identified that a “mains failure” alarm was generated on the morning of the incident when the power outage occurred at the Muddy Creak Diversion Chambers but was not acted upon.

Proposed improvements include installing backup power at Muddy Creek and Whakatu Diversion Chambers so that during power outages alarm notification through SCADA systems would still occur.

They also include reviewing alarms from both diversion chambers to ensure all critical alarms are generated and sent to the right personnel.

A spokesperson for HDC said all critical improvement actions had been implemented which the council were doing irrespective of the court case.

Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ on Air


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