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$50,000 each for terrifying ordeal

A forest company must pay a Tolaga Bay couple $50,000 each after a terrifying night they spent marooned on their roof amid rising floodwaters laden with forestry debris.

Aratu Forestry Limited, previously Hikurangi Forest Farms Limited, was yesterday fined a total of $379,500 on two charges brought by Gisborne District Council under the Resource Management Act of discharging contaminants — forestry waste and silt — to land in circumstances that enabled it to enter water.

The offence is punishable by a fine of up to $600,000.

The company was also ordered to pay three victims a total of $125,000 reparation for emotional harm.

Ten forestry companies were charged with similar RMA offences, which came to light in two extreme weather events that hit the region but impacted on different places on June 3 and 4 and June 11 and 12, 2018.

One of the charges against Aratu related to its Te Marunga forest, about 12 kilometres west of Tolaga Bay, which was affected by the earlier event when 47,000 cubic metres of forest waste ended up on the beach at Tolaga Bay and another 400,000 cubic metres was lodged elsewhere around the catchment, damaging properties, and blocking waterways, roads, and bridges.

The other charge related to Aratu's Wakaroa Forest, in Waimata, which was mostly impacted by the second event.

Slash and sediment debris mobilised from Wakaroa and other forests inundating Uttings Bridge on Waimata Road, which had to be closed, and led to significant repair costs and inconvenience for residents to the north of the bridge.

Environment Court Judge Brian Dwyer sentenced Aratu in Gisborne yesterday, fining the company $229,500 for its breaches at Te Marunga forest and $150,000 for those at Wakaroa forest.

Gisborne District Council will receive all but 10 percent of the fine.

Judge Dwyer also ordered the emotional harm reparation for the three victims — residents on a shared family farm in Mangatokerau Valley one of the worst-hit areas of Tolaga Bay.

Paul Te Kira and his partner Nina Maraki, will each get $50,000.

They were forced to clamber on to their roof with their four-year-old granddaughter at about 3.30am when floodwaters entered their house and rose to within 30cm of the ceiling.

They had to wait exposed to the weather until a helicopter could rescue them at first light. Huge logs in a raft of forestry debris inundating the Mangatokerau River battered their home beneath them.

Ms Maraki said in court they were lucky to get out alive — it was a miracle the house remained anchored to its foundations, unlike the property's four other buildings.

She was nearly swept away but her husband pulled her to safety on the roof through an access hole he made in a clearlite porch cover.

He used the section of plastic he removed as a makeshift weather shield. They grabbed their granddaughter's wetsuit as it floated past. They could not keep her dry but at least they could keep her warm, Ms Maraki said.

The family lost everything — their home, all their possessions, livestock, all their farm equipment and infrastructure.

Others in the district also suffered property damage but at least still had their homes, Ms Maraki said.

A whangai sister Amber Grace who also lost her home at the property that night but who was fortunately away, will receive $25,000.

Mr Te Kira and Ms Maraki have since moved into temporary accommodation on a hill among a stand of Ngati Porou forestry overlooking their former valley home. It will be eight to 10 years before they can build and move into a new home on the plateau above, they said.

Ms Grace said she relocated to Gisborne but felt disoriented and missed the place where she thought she would live out her life.

Mr Te Kira said while the farm was on a known flood plain, it had never before been affected this way.

(Specialist reports before the court confirmed this flood event was due to a wall of wood that clogged and damned the Mangatokerau River.)

Judge Dwyer said the company was part of a wealthy international conglomerate with huge forestry holdings in this district (35,000 hectares) and in other parts of New Zealand. It could afford a reparation order of substance for these victims who suffered immense loss and a terrifying, life-threatening ordeal.

(The family's financial loss was not a focus of this hearing. Judge Dwyer said it was a complex issue that needed to be determined through civil action.)

In relation to the RMA offences, the judge said he noted reports identified the majority of forest debris arising from erosion of recently-harvested areas rather than compliance issues.

It was not for this court to question the past decision allowing production forestry to be established in such environmentally vulnerable areas or the more recent decision to allow it to be harvested, but apparent to the court was the need for great care in harvesting and compliance with codes of practice and resource consents.

None of the consents issued to Aratu (between 2008 and 2016) allowed discharge of forest debris to water. Its failures to observe the Forest Owners Code of Practice and the general failure to properly manage harvesting and earthworks on undoubtedly vulnerable areas (much of it the region's most erosion prone) were “reckless”.

In setting sentence starting points for each charge, the judge took into account the maximum penalty, the vulnerability of the affected environment and extent of damage, the breaches of resource consent, the business activity aspect, need for deterrence, culpability, Aratu's remedial efforts and other factors, past good character and comparable cases.

The company's culpability was high, he said. A large scale forestry company should be aware of standards it was required to meet.

The devastation caused by failings at Te Marunga in particular was huge compared to other forest failings around the region. At Te Marunga 83 skid sites collapsed, compared to the 11 in Waituna Forest, to the south of Gisborne, for which Juken NZ Limited was fined $152,000 by him last November, the judge noted.

Steep slopes clear-felled all at once were primed to fail. The company must have known the risk and the likelihood of extreme weather. It took that risk regardless “almost hoping it wouldn't rain”, the judge said.

With forestry here still to harvest, the company needed to be deterred from repeat offending. The fine needed to have some bite, not just be a cost of doing business.

The fine also needed to deter other forest companies, all of which needed to develop a mosaic approach to harvesting, despite economic challenges that might bring, Judge Dwyer said.

The sentence starting point for Wakaroa Forest was $200,000 with the only possible discount one for the company's early guilty pleas (25 percent). Nothing the company had done there since the event was over and above what was required by council abatement notices or what it should have done all along.

The sentence starting point for Te Marunga was $360,000.

It was reduced by 15 percent for the company's demonstrated remorse and remedial work beyond that required by abatement notices.

Defence counsel Alistair Darroch submitted the company formally apologised to affected families, made koha payments to them, and had begun tidy up work at their properties. Some were visited by management including the then director from Malaysia.

Aratu met half the costs of cleaning up Tolaga Bay Beach despite waste there being more attributable to other companies.

The guilty plea discount also applied.

There were no discounts for other factors.

Prosecutor Adam Hopkinson submitted Aratu could not get discount for past good character — it was previously warned by council officials about its non-compliance.

A Mangatokerau Valley couple and their four-year-old granddaughter wait to be rescued from the roof of their house during the 2018 June flooding in Tolaga Bay. Aratu Forestry Limited was yesterday sentenced on Resource Management Act charges laid after the devastating floods. Picture supplied