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Guilty pleas to RMA breaches

Hikurangi Forest Farms has admitted its forestry waste was among the devastating raft of debris that surged through Tolaga Bay in floodwaters last June, causing millions of dollars in damage.

The company and nine other companies subsequently charged by Gisborne District Council with breaching the Resource Management Act were represented at an Environment Court hearing in Auckland district courthouse this morning.

Hikurangi Forest Farms vacated not-guilty pleas from March and its trial by jury election to plead guilty to two breaches of the RMA — that it discharged contaminants, specifically forestry waste, on to land or into water.

The charges relate to the company’s Wakaroa and Te Marunga forests, with the offending said to have occurred between June 2017 and July 2018.

Council prosecutor Adam Hopkinson withdrew two further charges alleging breaches of another part of the Act — that the company used land in a manner that contravened RMA regulations.

Judge Melanie Harland scheduled sentencing for October 1.

She also referred the case for restorative justice, which Mr Hopkinson said would be convened either by the court’s service provider or by a council-assigned provider.

The other companies charged in relation to the alleged offending have maintained not guilty pleas and have each been further remanded for another case review hearing on September 23.

Those companies are A and R Logging Ltd, DNS Forest Products 2009 Ltd, Ernslaw One Ltd, Juken New Zealand, Logic Forest Solutions, Permanent Forests Ltd, PF Olsen Ltd, South Pacific Forestry Holdings Ltd, and Timbergrow Ltd.

Earnslaw and Timbergrow have elected trial by jury; the others have elected judge-alone fixtures.

The trials, which will involve numerous witnesses and thousands of photographs, are expected to take at least three weeks.

Judge Harland told counsel she was aware parties affected by the events had expressed concern over the time being taken for these cases to progress through the court process, and that those parties had a right to see matters dealt with in a timely way.

She expected counsel to move diligently and quickly towards final hearings, at least some of which she hoped could be scheduled for December this year. All matters will be heard in Gisborne.

Each of the offences the companies face carries a fine of up to $600,000.

Many thousands of tonnes of logs and smaller forestry detritus entered waterways, flooded on to land, and accumulated on Tolaga Bay and other beaches during weather events on June 4 and 11 last year.

One couple suffered a harrowing ordeal when they were forced to take refuge with their four-year-old granddaughter at 4am on the roof of their Mangatokerau Road house in northern Tolaga Bay.

Floodwaters laden with heavy logs battered the house beneath them and washed away a nearby woolshed.

Contractors spent weeks clearing roads and farmers had to repair or replace fences and other structures wiped out by the debris that inundated and overran waterways in the area.

The aftermath of the Tolaga Bay storm last June, which Dame Anne Salmond says highlighted New Zealand's poor forestry practices. File picture by Liam Clayton