Wasting ratepayers $100,000 a day?

A guest post by , a Wellington City Councillor:

As the portfolio lead for water, I have been looking to see where costs might be saved in order to give our ratepayers a break during the crisis – I have been advocating for a zero rates rise over the next quarter to get us through to June/July when we will have a much better picture of what CV-19 means for us and what the Government’s response will be.

The stand out operating cost is that associated with trucking our treated wastewater from Moa Point to the Southern Landfill.  We do this because the pipelines connecting Moa Point to the Southern Landfill burst in late January.  This costs us $680,000 a week, or $100,000 a day, or $8,300 an hour.  Arguably, we could discharge, 2 km into the Cook Strait, via the outfall pipe that was designed to do this.  We are checking whether our consent allows for this.  We are also having conversations around a variety of options, including spreading the cost across a number of years.

Before COVID – 19 hit, and the associated lock down, we anticipated a further 6 weeks before the repair would see the pipeline back up and running – so about $4.2 million of extra costs although I see the Herald are reporting an even longer period.  The fix is to install a ‘liner’ that bridges the gap left by the burst – it is 2 km long and not an insignificant engineering exercise.  In fact it has never been undertaken In Australasia.  It requires the ‘liner’ to be manufactured in Germany with precision, flown to New Zealand, and  for 6 German engineers to fly in, be quarantined for 2 weeks, work with Wellington Water’s team and install the sleeve, and for nothing to go wrong.  If one of them becomes ill, if the liner doesn’t fit, if the software they use is incompatible with that used by Wellington Water, if there is language confusion or if a myriad of other things don’t quite pan out, then the ability to pull in extra resource and do a work around is severely constrained so we might be trucking wastewater for months.  I was Todd Corp’s asset manager for the Maui Pipeline and I know that complicated engineering jobs on pipelines very rarely run to time, even in the best of circumstances.  This is an uncapped liability of $100,000 a day.

Adding to this, I have been told that our landfill consent requires wastewater to be mixed 4 to 1 with other organic waste  but because the landfill is closed we are having to use rock and dirt.  This doesn’t compact like the normal mix does meaning we fill up the landfill 12 times faster.  Before the crisis we had an estimated 3 years left at the landfill.  If the landfill fills up we will have to truck sludge to Porirua – the cost is likely to be well above the current $680,000 a week.

The advice I have received is that there is no environmental hazard to disposing at sea – the outfall pipe was designed to do this and is 2 km offshore.  I am advised that our beaches and fisheries will not be impacted.  It would be good to get that in writing.  The treated water has had all inorganic solids (syringes, condoms, sanitary pads, paper etc) removed and has the consistency of dirty water.  It is organic waste.  I am told that when Moa Point was consented, the marine scientists signed off a report confirming any discharge would be safe to the environment – I am still firming up whether this has changed.  Mana whenua are in the conversation and the GWRC.  No decisions have been made in fact are working on the basis of continuing the trucking and developing a funding strategy.    I am merely in the process of gathering information and getting the right people around the table so we can have an informed conversation.

While Wellington was booming, when the Hurricanes would put ~10,000 into the stadium, when the All Blacks were to play Australia and sell it out, when the airport would give us a $12 million dividend, the cost of trucking could be worn.  Now we are trying to make up $70 million of lost revenue and keep rates low.  It is a difficult juggling act.  We need to make tough decisions.  I wouldn’t be doing my job if I weren’t asking these questions.

I think it is great that a Councillor is asking whether ratepayers can do better than spending $100,000 a day on trucking wastewater. That is equal to $36 million a year.

Considering boating, swimming and fishing is banned for the next few weeks, I’d say the outfall pipe is a very valid option.

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