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A WWTP Update from Whanganui District Councillor Rob Vinsen
Published: 22 Dec 2016
Author: Cr Rob Vinsen

It’s too late now to stop the plant

The unfortunate reality for Whanganui ratepayers is that it is now too late to make meaningful changes that will significantly reduce the cost of the $41.2M Cardno/BTO designed Wastewater Treatment Plant.

During the recent election the four Whanganui Beyond 2030 members, Alan Taylor, David Bennett, Murray Cleveland, and Graeme Young, together with the three re-elected councillors,  Philippa Baker Hogan, Charlie Anderson and myself  campaigned to call for a review of the plant.

Despite our earnest attempts to stop the signing of the construction contract by the Chief Executive ,Kym Fell, just 17 days before the election, this action has set the Council on a path that has become too costly to deviate from.

On the first day after the election result was declared, I wrote on behalf of all seven councillors to Mayor Elect  Hamish McDouall, and the Chief Executive, asking to immediately suspend all work on the site. At that stage, Hawkins had only been onsite one week and penalties would only have been ten’s of thousands rather than the ten’s of millions they were to become later.

Mayor McDouall  called a Workshop which was  held on October 31. Being a workshop this gave the group no opportunity to move a motion to stop work.

When the AFFCO group and Tasman Tanning, who contribute 85% of the biological load of the plant, advised Council last June that the scheme was unaffordable for them, that should have been the time to stop work and review the decision. Mr Colin Hovey, council’s former WWTP Manager, had earlier produced charts that showed that the old plant had met the resource consent conditions on 120 of the 179 sampling days in the three years following the commissioning of the plant in 2007. His advice was rejected by Council, however, it was revealed during the inquiry that the plant had actually  worked satisfactorily for large periods of time. Mr Mark Hughes, council’s Infrastructure Manager, stated that the plant failed to meet the resource consent conditions 61% of the time following the commissioning – which beg’s the question that it was compliant for 39% of the time. When questioned on this , Mr Hughes said that this compliance was associated with low loads from AFFCO during their off season. Surely, this was motivation to revisit the design of the plant when AFFCO advised they were withdrawing from the scheme. CardnoBTO themselves had previously advised in November 2011 that the old plant could be fixed for $3.7M. This report was not presented to councillors however. Although AFFCO gave notice of their withdrawal from the scheme, and that they would build their own pre treatment plant, the Mayor, and the majority of the previous term’s councillors voted in June 2016 to continue with an over capacity plant that without the industrial load is capable of servicing a population of 300,000 residents.

The greatest failure though of the previous council was that trade waste agreements were not completed by participants in the trade waste scheme before the design was completed.  The Ministry of Health advised in 2013 that the first step when designing a wastewater plant was to establish the load by signing trade waste agreements with all participants. Instead the previous council chose to personally denigrate the Ministry of Health officer, Mr John Harding, and ignored the content of his advice .

 My opinion is that the costs for ratepayers, both CAPex and OPex, have been unnecessarily inflated by the previous Council’s failure to listen to the views expressed by not only the Dept. of Health, but also independent professional engineers and trade waste scheme participants. Other options for rectifying the failed MWH designed plant were both practical and feasible,, considering the reduced load from the AFFCO withdrawal.

The $56,000 inquiry by Mr Robert Domme became a waste of money when he was instructed that he could not receive any technical advice, or to interview MWH Global for their view. So Mr Domme proceeded to produce only the side of the story that has been presented by Council since  CardnoBTO advised in 2013 that , in their opinion , the old plant was unsalvageable. CardnoBTO were then contracted to design the new plant.

The decision to pursue MWH in court, rather than to negotiate with them to remedy the non- performance of the plant, placed Council on a path that became impossible for them to deviate from. Council’s legal advice was that the  case against MWH  would be compromised if there was any consideration that the plant could be rectified at a minimal cost.

My efforts will now concentrate on ensuring that ratepayers, both residential and industrial, are treated fairly. The reality is that capital costs are fixed, and operating costs for activated sludge plants are high.

If we had of been able to retain and enhance the pond based system , as many professionals believed was the case,  cost increases for residents and industry would have been minor.

For the $41.2M new plant the current rate projections for 2018/19 is for an increase in the residential pan tax from the current $351 to  $474 ( with AFFCO in the scheme ) or $516 ( with AFFCO out of the scheme)

The Trade Waste Levy is expected to increase from the current $1.75M to $2.8M

It is my opinion that those councillors , and the Mayor , that voted in favour in June with proceeding to construct a new plant, should gain no comfort from their decision.

MWH Plant Now


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