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1. Introduction

1.1 Background

Several studies and surveys carried out in recent years in New Zealand have revealed that a large number of on-site wastewater systems are not performing in a way that provides acceptable levels of treatment of domestic wastewater. For example, a recent study commissioned by the Ministry for the Environment concluded:

There are in the order of 250 communities across the country with significant numbers of failing on-site wastewater treatment systems. These communities comprise a total of about 42,000 houses. This estimate does not include isolated rural dwellings. (EMS Ltd, 2007)

In many cases the failure of on-site systems to treat wastewater adequately is due to property owners not really knowing how to maintain and operate their systems. Discharges of untreated or partially treated wastewater from on-site systems are causing public health risks and negative environmental effects in most regions in New Zealand, and there is growing concern by local government about how to manage these situations.

The development of technical documents such as AS/NZS 1547:2000 and the Auckland Regional Council’s TP581 over the last decade has seen a major advance in the design and installation of on-site wastewater systems. However, many issues still remain. Multiple pieces of legislation and a lack of clarity of roles between local and regional councils often mean failing systems go unchecked, and there is often no incentive for system owners to maintain their systems to a level that treats the effluent to an adequate standard.

Local authorities have asked the Ministry for the Environment to develop tools to help them manage on-site wastewater systems and their effects.2 In response to these requests, the Ministry commissioned an investigation into on-site wastewater management, with the following objectives:

  • to define the environmental effects and other issues associated with on-site wastewater systems

  • to identify and assess options to best manage on-site wastewater systems for the purpose of reducing their adverse environmental and health impacts

  • to scope options for the management of on-site wastewater systems that could be addressed by a national environmental standard.

The investigation involved a survey of all regional councils (including unitary authorities) and a selection of territorial local authorities to identify problems and relevant issues. During a one-day workshop in June 2005, attended by over 30 local government and industry representatives, the problems, issues and options for management were presented and discussed. Participants at the workshop identified priorities and discussed the suitability of different management options, including the use of national environmental standards.

The findings from the investigation were compiled in a report, Issues and Options for the Management of On-site Wastewater Systems (Duffill Watts and King et al, 2005), which identified 25 issues related to on-site wastewater management. These were condensed into seven broad themes:

  • lack of communication between local authorities, and unclear roles

  • inadequate training and education of designers, installers, regulators and maintenance personnel

  • insufficient general knowledge about the performance of different systems and lack of information about the locations and types of systems

  • inconsistencies in the requirements for treatment systems and the management process among local authorities

  • inadequate and inconsistent assessments of whether the type of system proposed is the best practicable option

  • gaps in the operation, maintenance and performance monitoring of systems

  • ensuring adequate levels of treatment performance from primary and secondary treatment units and disposal systems.

Of the seven main themes identified, two were considered potentially appropriate for management using a national environmental standard. The other five were considered to be already covered by various legislative mechanisms. The two themes − and possible solutions − identified in the issues and options report are:

  1. gaps in the operation, maintenance and performance monitoring of systems − the solution suggested was a warrant of fitness-type scheme requiring regular servicing, inspection and certification for the operation, maintenance and performance monitoring of on-site systems (referred to as a “programmed management scheme”)
  2. inadequate training and education of designers, installers, regulators and maintenance personnel − the solution suggested was to improve the qualification requirements for on-site wastewater system installers and other service providers.

The report concluded that securing long-term operation, maintenance and monitoring was vital to address many of the problems identified. The investigation highlighted a high level of support for the development of a national environmental standard for on-site wastewater management. In particular, local government and industry see benefits from a proposed standard in terms of :

  • creating a level playing field for industry and clarifying environmental expectations

  • providing consistency and certainty in decision-making and in the preparation of district/ regional plans

  • providing a minimum level of protection for human health and the environment through a proactive framework.

A warrant of fitness-type scheme requiring on-site systems to pass a servicing inspection was considered particularly appropriate for a proposed standard. However, this support was tempered by general concerns about the cost of any additional monitoring required and the burden imposed on local government regulatory resources.

Based on these findings, the Ministry for the Environment concluded that regular inspections and maintenance would considerably improve the performance of on-site systems. Many councils have indicated they would like some national assistance in setting up an inspection and maintenance scheme in their areas, and a national environmental standard could provide a cost-effective framework for such regular inspections and maintenance. The benefits would include:

  • improved education of system owners about their systems

  • improved management of on-site systems

  • improved performance of systems, resulting in reduced health and environmental effects

  • improved longevity of systems.

In November 2006, the Ministry for the Environment convened a working group made up of local government officials, who provided background information and advice that has contributed to the development of the proposed standard (see Appendix 5 for a list of members). The Ministry for the Environment has developed an inspection framework for on-site wastewater systems (sections 5 and 6) and commissioned an initial economic appraisal of the proposed standard. The economic appraisal provides indicative costs and benefits for implementing the proposed standard, and the results of this appraisal are summarised in section 7.

1.2 Purpose

This discussion document has been prepared to:

  • help you understand the proposal and its potential costs and benefits

  • help you prepare questions and feedback

  • guide you in making a submission.

1.3 What is a national environmental standard?

National environmental standards are regulations made under section 43 of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) that prescribe technical environmental standards, methods or requirements.

National environmental standards may cover, but are not limited to:

  • contaminants

  • water quality, level or flow

  • air and soil quality

  • noise

  • standards, methods or requirements for monitoring.

National environmental standards may specify qualitative or quantitative standards, standards for discharges, classification methods, methods and processes to implement standards, as well as exemptions and transitional provisions. They can apply nationwide or only to specific areas.

The regulation-making power under the RMA is limited. Sometimes it is impossible to address all areas of concern in a standard because only those matters that could reasonably be considered under the RMA can be included in a national environmental standard.

In the present context, a national environmental standard can provide local government with the tools to help manage or prevent risks to human health and reduce risks to the environment from the potential cumulative effects of multiple on-site systems. National environmental standards can capture wider benefits than is possible from decision-making at a regional or local level. Such benefits include providing a nationally consistent framework, providing more certainty, and simplifying the process of policy formulation, monitoring and review.

Each local or regional council must enforce the same standard, although it may impose stricter rules or bylaws if the national environmental standard explicitly allows for this.

1.4 The process of developing national environmental standards

An outline of the process for developing a national environmental standard, including the informal and formal submission processes, is shown in Figure 1. This discussion document forms part of the formal submission process.

The process of developing a national environmental standard differs from the statutory plan and resource consent processes in that there are no hearings, appeal provisions or First Schedule consultations. However, the RMA does require the Minister for the Environment to provide an opportunity for the public and iwi authorities to comment on the proposed subject matter of the standard before the national environmental standard is made. That opportunity is provided through submissions on this discussion document.

The submission period is your opportunity to make a formal submission on the proposed standard. A ten-week submission period is provided to enable any formal approval or ratification of submissions that is required by councils, committees or boards. Details on how to make a submission are given in section 8.

To help you formulate a submission, throughout the document questions are posed on aspects of the proposed standard for your consideration. These are listed at the end of each section and are brought together in section 8. However, you are welcome to provide feedback on any aspect of the proposed standard.

If the Government recommends a national environmental standard following consultation on this document, a regulatory impact assessment3 will be required. This discussion document contains, and invites comment on, the substantive elements of a regulatory impact assessment.

At the end of the submissions process the Ministry for the Environment will prepare for the Minister for the Environment a report and recommendations on the comments and proposed subject matter of the standard and a formal evaluation of the alternatives, costs and benefits under section 32 of the RMA. The report and recommendations must be publicly notified. The Minister will then consider the report and recommendations and the section 32 evaluation before deciding whether to recommend to the Governor-General that the national environmental standard be made by order in council.

Figure 1: Process for developing a national environmental standard

This flow diagram of the NES development process start with a Public process phase comprising a Scoping proposal with stakeholders. This leads to a Discussion document. This is the informal process.

The Public process continues by Public notification and a Submissions period. This is a 9-week formal process.

Close of submissions is followed by a phase of Analysis which leads to a Report on submissions.

The report and recommendations (including a section 32 RMA cost-benefit analysis, and a Regulatory Impact Assessment are completed and a Final proposal to the Minister is made.

The Minister consults his colleague, Report and recommendations are released and legal drafting of the standard takes place.

Eventually, the Draft becomes regulation.

1.5 Relationship to the proposed National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management

The Government has agreed to a strategy to improve the management of fresh water, protect our freshwater resources into the future, and acknowledge the fundamental importance of water to all New Zealanders. The strategy focuses on three national outcomes for fresh water:

  • improve the quality and efficient use of fresh water by building and enhancing partnerships with local government, industry, Māori, science agencies and providers, and rural and urban communities

  • improve the management of the undesirable effects of land use on water quality through increased national direction and partnerships with communities and resource users

  • provide for growing demands on water resources and encourage efficient water management through increased national direction, working with local government to identify options for supporting and enhancing local decision-making, and developing best practice.

The proposed standard for on-site systems is strongly linked to the second outcome of improving the management of the undesirable effects of land use on water quality. The imminent development of a National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management will further provide high-level direction on the management of land uses to protect water quality and manage the increasing demands on quantity.

1 AS/NZS 1547:2000 On-site Domestic Wastewater Management, Auckland Regional Council Technical Publication TP58, On-site Wastewater Treatment Systems: Design and Management.

2 2005 and 2006 Talk Environment Roadshow feedback.

3 Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) is a policy tool widely used in OECD countries. RIA examines and measures the likely benefits, costs and effects of new or changed legislation and regulations. RIA is used to define problems and to ensure that government action is justified and appropriate.