Recent sentencing decisions of the District Court emphasise the importance of owners and managers of dairy farms implementing and maintaining good infrastructure and management systems to avoid accidental discharges of dairy effluent in circumstances where it may enter a waterway. The fact that an owner or farm manager may be absent from a farm and have left day to day operations, such as milking, in the hands of another person, such as a sharemilker, will not avoid liability.

In Wellington Regional Council v Donald, a Southland farmer received a hefty fine of $45,000 for a discharge of effluent that occurred when an irrigator arm broke while he was absent from the farm on a holiday. He had engaged a relief milker to carry out milking in his absence and had left the irrigator set up. When the relief worker found the irrigator arm was broken, he disconnected the hose and left it lying on the ground where it discharged a significant quantity of effluent for a number of days where it could readily get into a waterway.
The Court accepted that the farmer, himself, had absolutely no deliberate intention of discharging the effluent and that it appeared that the relief worker had been very lackadaisical and careless. The farmer was nonetheless convicted and fined, primarily on the basis of the need to send a very clear message to the dairy farming community of the serious consequences if dairy effluent is not adequately managed.

Six days later, in Canterbury Regional Council v Hilltop Land Company Limited, a Canterbury company was fined $25,000 in relation to unintentional discharges of effluent from a K-irrigator, a blocked stone trap and a travelling irrigator, again onto land in circumstances that may have resulted in it entering water. The company had been contracted by the farm owner/consent holder as an operations manager. The company fulfilled this role for a number of farms and the director of the company was not present on the farms for any significant periods of time. He relied on sharemilkers and other employees to carry out day to day operations and inform him of any problems. The Court accepted that the discharge was not deliberate, however, the company had not exercised all reasonable care by taking reasonable steps to ensure the effective operation of the effluent management system.

In this decision, the Court also placed great weight on the need for general deterrence for effluent discharge offences.
The Court also identified that the owner of the farm, who was yet to be sentenced, while having no hands on role at all, was the controlling body and had even greater culpability.
The take home message of these decisions is that farm owners and managers who are leaving day to day operations in the hands of others must take reasonable steps to ensure that their effluent management systems operate effectively. These measures will hopefully avoid any accidental discharges. If an accidental discharge still occurs, such measures will assist to reduce culpability and potential fines.

If you require any legal advice on an effluent discharge or any other resource management related offence, please contact our resource management and environmental law expert, Fiona McLeod

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