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Fined $28,000 for wetlands violation

Company director 'genuinely didn't know' area was protected.

An East Cape pharmaceutical company has been fined $28,000 for planting in and taking water from a “regionally significant wetland” without consent.

Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals has been convicted of modifying and taking water from Te Whare Wetlands in breach of the Resource Management Act after Gisborne District Council laid charges.

In sentencing at Gisborne District Court yesterday, Judge Brian Dwyer said he believed Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals director Mark Kerr “genuinely didn't know” he was planting 3.1 hectares of manuka through a protected area.

But the need for water take permits was “very common”, he said.

Wetlands in the Gisborne region have been reduced to 1.75 percent of their original extent.

According to a summary of facts, Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals used a tractor to disc and harrow about 30 hectares of land near Te Araroa to create “uniform terrain” before planting 200,000 manuka trees from November 2019.

About 3.1 hectares of the plantation were within the Te Whare Wetlands protection management area and at least 1.5 hectares of wetland vegetation was affected.

The company also excavated 460 metres of channels in the wetlands to reduce flooding of its manuka plantation, which has been used to produce manuka oil at its Te Araroa factory.

Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals took between 3000 and 5000 litres of water from the wetlands to irrigate the young crop over about 50 days in January and February 2020.

Lawyer Adam Hopkinson, prosecuting on behalf of the council, argued there had been a “high degree of carelessness”.

Given the company had been operating the manuka factory for 26 years, it “should have been aware” of the regionally significant Te Whare wetlands, Mr Hopkinson said.

Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals had also obtained five water take permits in the past.

As the planting was commercially motivated, Mr Kerr should have been aware of his legal obligations under the RMA and should have sought expert advice or contacted the council, Mr Hopkinson said.

“A defence of ignorance doesn't stack up,” he said.

Lawyer Matt Atkinson, defending Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals, said the wetland was “severely degraded” and prior to this it had 300 cattle grazing on it.

There were no fences, no water troughs and the cattle would wade through, drink from and excrete into the wetland.

Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals had been quite careful to not plant in the areas that were more “high quality”, Mr Atkinson said.

Ecologists representing the company and the council had agreed that the manuka could stay in place.

“It's hard to see this isn't an overall improvement to the way it was,” he said.

The company's response had been exemplary — fully co-operating with the council and voluntarily taking steps to remediate the area.

It had filled in the drains and was committed to putting up a fence when it could be agreed with the landowners.

Mr Atkinson argued there was no need for deterrence because it was a “genuine mistake”.

It was a small company formed to provide economic and employment opportunities to the community rather than a “corporate that's out to make money”.

Judge Dwyer said wetlands were a “diminishing environment” and degradation of even small areas had an impact.

In sentencing, he took a starting point of $40,000 for both charges and allowed a 30 percent discount for early guilty pleas and previous good character.

EVIDENCE: Gisborne District Council officers found a pump, hose and irrigation equipment at a Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals manuka plantation when they visited the site on February 24, 2020. Picture supplied