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3. Summary of submissions

3.1 Key themes

Table 2 sets out the key themes that came through in submissions, based on the questions posed in the discussion document and further themes identified when the submissions were summarised. In addition to responses to the structured questions in the discussion document, many submitters also provided more general comments or observations on the proposal.

Table 2: Key themes in the discussion document

General theme Question no. Sub-theme
General comments N/A  
Problem definition Q. 1
Q. 2
Q. 3
Problem identification
Extent of problems
Problem quantification
Options Q. 4
Q. 5
Q. 6
The policy objective
Consideration of alternatives
Analysis of issues
Proposed standard Q. 7
Q. 8
Q. 9
Q. 10
Q. 11
Q. 12
General comments
Scope of the NES
Inspection intervals
Pump-outs
Maintenance requirements, checklist
Treatment standard
Implementing the proposed standard Q. 13
Q. 14
Q. 15
Q. 16

Targeting the NES to locations

Risk assessment methodology

Potential problems with implementation and administration

Training for inspectors

Benefits and costs Q. 17
Q. 18
Q. 19
Q. 20
Q. 21
Q. 22
Accuracy of costs and benefits and estimates

Additional information from submitters on costs and benefits has been grouped together under question 18.
Special themes   Financial assistance
    Managing septage/sludge from pump-out
    Responsibility for administration of NES

3.2 General comments

The six main issues raised by submitters as general comments were:

  • support for the policy objective but concerns about the proposed NES

  • the proposal needs to be more comprehensive and should address the design and installation of on-site systems

  • the proposal will result in additional bureaucracy and additional expense with no certainty of benefits

  • support for flexibility in how and where the proposed NES is applied

  • the benefits of the proposal need to be expanded/emphasised

  • the proposal should consider and address potential funding for communities and individuals who may not be able to afford to pay for repairs or replacement of failing systems.

Most submitters supported the policy objective of better management of on-site systems, but there was considerable variation in views on the appropriateness or likely effectiveness of the proposed standard in achieving the objective. For example, one submitter said, “Agree in principle but don’t want to see an increase in local government bureaucracy to set up an inspection regime when one exists under the Building Act that could be adapted”; and “support in part having standards but have grave reservations about some of the recommendations”. Another submitter said, “individuals should no longer be able to continue using the ‘public’ environment for private or household waste disposal”. A third submitter acknowledged that “The proposal highlights the need for a tool to be put in place to start addressing the present issues of system failure and the future installation of onsite systems.”

These issues will be considered further during the analysis of submissions to help inform the final recommendations on the proposals that will be presented to the Minister for the Environment.

3.3 Problem definition

This key theme was split into three questions:

  1. Have the problems been defined correctly?

  2. Are there other problems you can think of?

  3. What is the magnitude of these problems?

Question 1: Have the problems been defined correctly?

From a total of 65 replies to this question, 30 submitters agreed with the problems identified in the discussion document; 12 submitters did not agree, the great majority of which were territorial local authorities (TLAs); and 23 submitters partly agreed, often citing additional problems or putting a different emphasis on the problems identified in the problem statement (section 3.9) in the discussion document.

Figure 5: Submitters’ position on problem definition

Notes: TLA = territorial local authority; RC = regional council; CG = central government; NGO = non-government organisation; DHB = district health board.

This graph depicts what percentage of the different submitter categories does agree, partly agree, or does not agree with the problem definition. The information is displayed in table format below:

 

Submitter type Agree (%) Partly agree (%) Not agree (%)
Industry-contractor 88 13  
Territorial Local Authority 23 15 62
Regional council 17 83 0
Central Government 100 0 0
Industry consultant 25 75 0
Small business 0 100 0
Community group 75 25 0
NGO 50 50 0
Individual 50 25 25
Unitary authority 100 0 0
Other industry 50 50 0
Iwi 0 0 100
Public health/ DHB 50 50 0
TOTAL 46 35 18

Among the agreeing submitters, an industry contractor stated that “Yes, have come across many instances of overflowing septic tanks that are polluting the environment, or septic tanks way past use by date and collapsed internally.” Gisborne District Council found it “consistent with our experiences”, and ESR Ltd stated that “NZ studies are consistent with overseas studies.”

Submissions that disagreed, or only partly agreed, that the problems were identified correctly can be roughly grouped into the following three categories.

Scope of problem too narrow or unclear

A large number of submitters felt that the NES only addresses a small portion of the problem themes, and that, for example, poor design and installation play a major role in the failure of on-site systems (see Question 2). Ngāti Tūwharetoa wanted a wider discussion of the effects of all classes of wastewater systems in New Zealand. Other submitters argued that problems exist not only in high-density areas but are also widespread in low-density rural areas. One submitter wanted clarification of the terms ‘hotspots’ and ‘sensitive areas’ as he considers one is preventive and the other reactive. There was a call from some submitters to quantify the problem in relation to other sources of pollution (eg, dairying). Central Otago District Council did not think the problems were clearly defined and saw the proposal as a reaction to a few isolated problems. Auckland Regional Council would have liked clearer reasons for the lack of ongoing servicing and maintenance to better inform a response to the options provided.

Problems defined wrongly

Many submissions from local government pointed out that in contrast to what was stated on page 18 in the discussion document, the tools to address the problem are already available, and that it is the resourcing to manage the situation proactively that is the problem. In the opinion of one industry consultant, the lack of clarity between councils was overemphasised, and it would be better to explain how an NES will create a level playing field for industry that cannot be created by other methods. There was also some doubt that inadequate management is a primary cause of high numbers of failing systems in New Zealand. Many TLAs claimed that the problems are caused by the historical development of sites with lower standards and poor subdivision controls (see Question 2 below).

Environment Waikato identified three sets of problems.

  • On-site systems are installed in unsuitable locations, meaning the success of the NES will only be partial at best.

  • Effluent is surfacing because of poor maintenance or a failed disposal area, often not in high-risk areas, and the NES would not deal with that. The Health Act would deal with localised health risk if recognised.

  • The cumulative effects of individual failing systems − the NES would go some way towards dealing with this situation.

Lack of hard facts and clear causation between failure and adverse effects

One criticism of the analysis was that no actual facts were provided, or they were over-simplified, and there was a lack of evidence to support the claims made. Doubts were expressed about the quality of the data, which had led to an inaccurate picture. The majority of submitters who did not agree with the problem definition in the discussion document were not convinced that failing on-site systems cause significant environmental effects when compared to other contamination sources.

Question 2: Are there other problems you can think of?

Fifty submissions identified additional problems. Many of the problems submitters identified as being important are included in the discussion document, but the proposed NES does not specifically deal with them because they are outside the scope of what an NES on operation and maintenance could cover. The additional problems can be broken down into several topics.

Poor design and installation

Seventeen submitters – mainly industry consultants, but also district councils – pointed out that poor design and installation (as well as management) play a major role in the failure of on-site systems. This includes inadequate site investigations, a lack of appropriate technical knowledge of systems by installers, and lack of innovation in developing systems applicable to a wide range of environments. A large proportion of advanced on-site systems would fail the manufacturer’s specifications. Concern about the lack of integration between various standards and criteria (eg, AS/NZ1547 and guidance by the Department of Building and Housing) was also raised. Some submissions identified problems with the Building Act and claimed that TLAs were not carrying out their functions properly.

Another issue raised was problems arising from the owner or other unqualified people undertaking repairs that are not in compliance with current standards. Industry contractors attributed surface water flooding to inadequate lids, vents, mushrooms and gully traps, and explained groundwater and root intrusions by missing seals and drains constructed with poor materials by today’s standards. A specific problem identified by Environment Southland was having disposal fields in close proximity (or over) tile drains, creating direct flow paths to ground and surface water.

Inadequate development controls

Many submissions identified the subdivision and building consent processes as a significant problem; for example, subdivision consents that created lots that were too small to accommodate adequate space for an on-site system, or a building consent granted without an on-site system being inspected. There was also criticism of the double consenting requirements (building consent and resource consent) for on-site systems.

The main concerns of submitters regarding development controls were:

  • inappropriate subdivision consents allowing on-site systems where reticulation should be required or is available

  • building permits issued for an on-site system with inappropriate design for the soil conditions, or systems not installed to design specification but approved by TLAs who may not have the technical background or capability for inspecting such systems

  • TLAs not requesting as-built plans to include the location of the on-site system for the records

  • TLAs not knowing, or lodging on their records, what special approvals they have permitted (eg, advanced on-site systems), or whether the reuse of greywater has been permitted.

Seven submitters, all TLAs, highlighted historical subdivision approvals that allowed inadequate lot sizes as a primary cause of failure. Also, at the time of large subdivision or district plan development, often the cheapest practical option for sewage treatment systems (reticulated versus on-site) would be selected, with maximum lots and with poor consideration of other lot activities or the design life of houses. Cumulative adverse long-term effects on the environment from large numbers of low-performance septic tanks (even though each system may be working satisfactorily) in small areas was seen as a significant problem by three submitters.

Warrant of fitness

A range of issues were raised in relation to applying a warrant of fitness using an NES. For example, one submitter voiced concern that an NES may not be fair where a system fails owing to design, site constraints, small sections, or inappropriate choice of treatment system. Another submitter stated that failure would often be measured by what can be seen, but systems can be failing with no visual impact. It was also pointed out by one industry consultant that there is a significant difference between system failure and risk. For example, a system may have failed but it cannot be assumed that the failure automatically creates a risk.

One submission considered that the wide variety of improved and advanced systems will challenge the NES to be broad and specific at the same time. This would imply that a broad knowledge base would be necessary to ensure the scope and effectiveness of the WOF was not limited. One submitter demanded that any minimum standard set of system components accommodate older systems (under-designed by current standards) that function with satisfactory performance. Another submitter wanted to have the quality of effluent considered. Support was expressed for a national testing facility and the inclusion of its performance certification in an NES.

One submitter thought the WOF regime under the proposed NES may give people false hope as to the need for reticulation, and that the proposed NES might be seen as a cheap alternative to reticulation. Another wanted the NES to provide a pathway to recognise the need for sewerage in areas of environmental constraints. A third submitter predicted a conflict if homeowners are required to upgrade when reticulation may be coming in the short to medium term.

Homeowner-related issues

A number of submissions commented on the ignorance of the common homeowner as to what on-site systems they have, what is acceptable performance and what to do about any problems. Three submitters emphasised the importance of the disposal fields and their maintenance. Another three saw the reasons for on-site system failure as being due to the changes in occupancy rates and densities, or increased usage of appliances such as dishwashers which cause greater loadings of wastewater. Another submission stated that the infrequent usage of holiday homes can lead to effluent not being treated appropriately. One of the industry contractors pointed out that for new specifically site-designed systems the maintenance is usually dropped after a few years or after a change in ownership of a property. A few submitters claimed that common operational issues such as drains blocked with soap powders and the usage of chemicals and other harmful or inappropriate cleaning agents being flushed through the on-site system have not been addressed in the discussion document.

One submitter raised concern about appropriate consultation with the homeowners the WOF will affect. Some criticism was raised that the current regime does not recognise economic and socio-economic issues, and that no incentives or adequate financial relief was proposed.

Other effects arising from failing systems

Northland District Health Board quoted a number of additional illnesses, such as asthma or cellulites, that could be attributed to contact with sewage resulting from failed on-site systems. They also noted that the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of occupants resulting from malfunctioning on-site systems should not be underestimated.

With regard to the natural environment, the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) demanded further consideration of groundwater, while Environment Bay of Plenty wanted further discussion of water body eutrophication and ecosystem effects. Aquaculture New Zealand argued that risk perception is important to consider, both locally and internationally, so that New Zealand is seen to be managing risks before environmental degradation or human health effects occur. If commercial and non-commercial shellfish resources were affected, the value of some areas would be reduced. Other submitters raised concern about the degradation of land as a result of wastewater overflowing or ponding, adverse amenity effects (odours), and impacts on the economic prosperity of a community (eg, beach sites).

Question 3: What is the magnitude of these problems?

Thirty-nine submitters responded to this question, although only 28 responses specifically answered the question, with the remainder indicating they could not provide an answer due to a lack of data or information. Responses can be allocated as in figure 6.

Figure 6: Extent of problem as seen by submitters

The pie chart describes the extent of the problem as seen by the submitters in per cent: 10 per cent agree with the scale of the problem as estimated in the discussion document, 52 per cent think the problem has been underestimated, and 7 per cent think the problem has been overestimated.

 

There was wide agreement − especially from the contractors in the industry who deal with on-site systems daily in the field − that a large number of on-site systems are failing. From the 39 submissions received, 20 gave an estimate of the magnitude of the problem of failing on-site systems. The other submissions cited lack of data for not being able to make an assessment, or raised a number of related issues in this context. Interestingly, from the 20 submissions addressing the extent of the problem, 15 thought the figures given in the discussion document were probably an underestimate of the true extent of failing on-site systems in New Zealand. Only two submitters (one iwi and one regional council) thought that the numbers of failing systems were an overestimate. Three submitters agreed that the magnitude of the problem pictured in the discussion document was about right.

Reasons given for the likely underestimation of the extent of the problem were that most failing systems go unreported unless there are off-site discharges. There were also criticisms of the efforts by authorities to monitor the effects of their policies and plans. Two submitters pointed out that the cumulative effects of failing on-site systems are often not being taken into account. Canterbury District Health Board cited a Bay of Plenty study with a calculated failure rate of 60 per cent and pointed out that underestimating the problem would potentially compromise the NES in terms of the ability to address the situation in terms of the workforce and funds available. The Ministry of Health cited test data from Hawke’s Bay which showed that 67 per cent of on-site systems were not producing secondary treated effluent to the standards claimed by the manufacturers, and that the degree of failure could be similar in other areas. Some submitters thought that the problem will become even worse in the future due to the large number of ageing septic tanks and more peri-urban developments with an increasing use of on-site systems.

Nine submitters stated that they could not give an opinion due to the limited work done so far to quantify the magnitude of the problem. Eleven submissions raised some related issues, including the fact that the extent of failing systems would vary from location to location and could fluctuate seasonally (eg, due to the groundwater table level). Three regional councils stated that it was difficult to directly link failing on-site systems to water quality problems and that the source of E. coli may be predominantly non-human (eg, from dairy-shed discharges) or from urban reticulated sewerage system overflow.

Aquaculture New Zealand pointed out that poorly performing septic tanks have the potential to affect a number of commercial and non-commercial shellfish resources, and that shellfish contamination as an environmental public health problem needs to be recognised as a major factor. In addition, Environment Bay of Plenty proposed putting greater emphasis on the effects on customary kaimoana gathering areas and relevance to Māori, especially with regard to recent legislation to protect customary rights.

3.4 The policy objective

This theme was split into three questions:

  1. Do you agree with the policy objective?

  2. Is there an alternative approach that has not been considered?

  3. Do you agree with the analysis provided in this section?

Question 4: Do you agree with the policy objective?

Sixty-six submissions were received on this question, with the overwhelming majority supporting the policy objective. Ten submitters did not agree, of which six were either a TLA or unitary authority. Nine submitters only partly agreed, five of which were industry consultants.

Figure 7: Submitters’ agreement with the policy objective

Notes: TLA = territorial local authority; RC = regional council; CG = central government; NGO = non-government organisation; DHB = district health board.

The graph shows the percentage of submitters that agreed, partly agreed or did not agree with the policy objective for each submitter category. The information is displayed in table format below:

 

Submitter type Agree (%) Partly  agree (%) Not agree (%)
Industry-contractor 100    
Territorial Local Authority 42 16 42
Regional council 100    
Central Government 100    
Industry consultant 22 56 22
Small business 100    
Community group 75   25
NGO 100    
Individual 100    
Unitary authority 75   25
Other industry 100    
Iwi 33 33 33
Public health/ DHB 80 20  
TOTAL 71 14 15

Two local government submitters (one TLA and one regional council) confirmed that the policy objective aligns with their strategic documents and plans. One TLA also agreed, but did not consider it appropriate to be implemented at a national level.

Some of the agreeing parties would like to see minor wording changes to the policy objective. For example, one NGO made the comment that just stating cumulative effects suggests that effects are only related to the density of on-site systems. One community group requested that the reference to “poorly maintained” be removed, as this is a value judgement and the policy should apply only to failed systems. The Ministry of Health supported the intent of the policy objective but recommended replacing “the risk to people” with “the risk to human health” to make the intent more transparent. Ngāti Kahungunu iwi agreed with the objective but suggested renaming the proposed NES “the Proposed National Environment Standard for the Maintenance of On-site Wastewater Systems”.

Five industry consultants agreed with the objective, with the caveat that the policy objective should also include the design and installation of on-site systems. One of these submitters wanted to add the wording “to improve the management, functioning and maintenance of on-site systems”. One district health board agreed with the policy objective in principle, but had the concern that the NES does not address the problem of cumulative effects as stated; ie, by providing tools to identify and monitor cumulative effects. Since assessment is only proposed on an individual site basis, the NES would need to be tightened to “on-site inspection and monitoring”.

One TLA conceded that the statement on “polluter pays” may be well intentioned, but it would not always be possible to apply because the cause of the problem may not be due to the ‘polluter’ but a function of many factors. Since on-site wastewater systems have the potential to affect the wider community, funding from a wider source than just the polluter should be considered. A second TLA thought the polluter-pays principle should apply, but should also take into account financial considerations. In contrast, while supporting the policy objective, Ngāti Tūwharetoa Māori Trust Board did not agree with the polluter-pays principle.

All five TLAs opposing the policy objective were concerned that it was inappropriately limited and would require a more holistic approach that includes design and installation.

Question 5: Is there an alternative approach that has not been considered?

Forty-nine submissions were received on this question, with 35 offering one or more alternative approaches to the proposed NES. Many of these submitters reiterated the alternative approaches under section 4.2 in the discussion document, or preferred to use existing legislation and systems. Others favoured a combination of the NES and other initiatives. One comment was, “We need concurrent approaches rather than alternative approaches. The NES should not exist in isolation.”

Figure 8: Approaches suggested by submitters

The pie chart shows the different approaches to the problem favoured by submitters. 27 per cent of submitters are in support of the NES approach, 35 per cent favour the use of existing legislation and systems, 23 per cent want a combination of approaches and 15 per cent suggest other approaches.

 

Use of existing legislation and systems

Many submissions drew attention to various existing mechanisms, industry standards and provisions under various agencies and Acts that could be utilised. For example, seven TLAs felt that no adequate credence had been given to the use of bylaws under the Local Government Act as an alternative option.

Six TLAs argued that the use of compliance schedules and the Building Act needs further investigation, as the administration systems are already in place for this process. Master Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayer NZ Inc, Local Government New Zealand and the Department of Conservation also wanted the potential to require a WOF through the compliance schedules of the Building Act to be reconsidered.

Five TLAs pointed to the existing tools under the Resource Management Act. One unitary authority proposed an NES that would require all on-site wastewater discharges, both new and existing, to have discharge permits with conditions that require a very similar level of inspection to that proposed by the NES’s WOF system.

The use of existing accredited contractors, or approved test certifiers as used in the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, was supported, as was the WasteTrack system.

Combination of approaches

A number of submissions argued that the NES as proposed should be part of a wider management regime, including independent testing of wastewater systems, training programmes, and implementation of New Zealand standards (AS/NZ:1547). This industry-wide initiative should include system suppliers, designers, installers and homeowners, plus the Ministry of the Environment and councils. There was also a call for a tandem approach that includes design and installation in the NES.

Some submissions pointed out that a combination of some of the alternative approaches described in the discussion document could achieve similar benefits with less additional bureaucracy (eg, legislative change along with a national policy statement).

Other approaches

Other approaches suggested included:

  • re-evaluation of reticulation as a first choice in hotspots

  • monitoring waterways and aquifers, including testing for E. coli and protozoa, and investigating when and if there is a problem

  • a staged non-regulatory approach leading to regulation, instead of immediately imposing an NES

  • more education of homeowners (eg, through information delivered to homeowners’ letterboxes).

Question 6: Do you agree with the analysis provided in this section?

Fifty-six submissions were received on the section that concluded that an NES is the best means to achieve the policy objective. Thirty submitters (54 per cent) agreed with the analysis of different options. Twenty submissions did not agree, of which eight were from TLAs and three from iwi. Six submitters (11 per cent) partly agreed with the analysis.

As a result, agreement or part agreement with the analysis was considerably lower (65 per cent) than agreement with the policy objective (85 per cent). This emphasises that while there is wide agreement on the policy objective, opinions are more divided on how to achieve this. Many arguments brought up had already been discussed in section 5 of the discussion document. However, the high number of TLAs that remained unconvinced that an NES is the best tool (and often favoured existing legislation as an alternative approach) mirrors the high proportion of TLAs that did not agree with the policy objective either.

Other common themes of the opposing submissions were that the assessment omitted many other industry-related problems, and that alternatives were not sufficiently considered.

3.5 The proposed standard

Question 7: Do you have any general comments about the proposed standard for the inspection and maintenance of on-site wastewater systems?

Sixty-nine respondents provided general comments about the proposed standard. These covered a wide range of issues, ranging from administration to the potential costs of implementing the proposals. Although the responses varied significantly, some common themes emerged, including:

  • concern that the standards would impose significant costs on homeowners and councils

  • the need for administration and clarity of roles

  • one size fits all is not appropriate

  • the need for flexibility in application

  • a perceived focus on septic tanks/disposal fields over other types of systems

  • the lack of focus on the major contributors of pollution (eg, agriculture or municipal)

  • a preference for administration by either TLAs or regional councils.

The most common point raised as a general comment was in relation to the administration of the proposal. Nine submitters raised this issue, with four preferring TLA administration, two preferring regional council administration and one preferring a combined approach.2 Linked to the preference for TLAs to administer the regime was the idea that this would facilitate the inclusion of information on property files held by TLAs.

Another strong theme in the general comments was concern that the discussion document focused too much on older (septic tank/disposal field) systems and did not fully consider or account for more advanced systems.

The standard is intended to address all types of on-site wastewater systems and ensure they are functioning appropriately regardless of the type of system or technology. However, the reality in New Zealand is that the vast majority of on-site systems are of the older septic tank and disposal-field type system.

Question 8: Should the proposed standard apply to private dwellings only …?

A clear message from submitters was that the proposed standard should not be limited to domestic dwellings, but should be applied to all on-site systems, or to all on-site systems within a gazetted area. The common argument was that the servicing of businesses, schools, marae, camping grounds etc would not be consistently monitored under current resource consents. There were, however, some provisos in the submissions regarding this: 11 submitters suggested that consented systems should not be included because they would already have monitoring conditions on their consents, and three submitters suggested that consented systems should be included only where the proposed standard would require greater management requirements.

Other submitters suggested that the NES should go further and apply to cluster systems as well.

Question 9: Do you agree with the inspection interval of three years?

There was a clear dichotomy in the responses to Question 9. Forty-three submitters considered that a regular three-year compulsory inspection is appropriate and provides a simple approach. The other position was that inspections should be based on need, and the return period could be decided by the initial inspection, taking into account the risk factors, age and type of the system. Another suggestion was to set a default period of three years, with the ability to extend the inspection interval based on the initial inspection. Eight submitters simply stated that a three-year inspection interval was not appropriate, while 23 submitters sought flexibility in the inspection frequency. The suggestion was made to incorporate changes to the building, or an increase of usage and change of ownership, into the inspection regime.

Several submissions argued for a link to existing maintenance contracts, as these are often six-monthly maintenance inspections by third parties that could provide valuable information on the condition of a system and reduce the potential for duplicate or unnecessary inspections.

IPENZ suggested a greater return period for basic/low-risk systems and more regular inspections for secondary and advanced systems that require greater levels of maintenance and have a greater risk of failure.

Question 10: Should inspections be coupled with an immediate pump-out?

There were 61 responses to the question of whether inspections should be linked with an immediate pump-out. Out of these, half (31) said that inspections should not be coupled with pump-outs. A frequent argument was that different systems require different pump-out intervals. There was also some concern about a potential conflict of interest if the inspector is also the pumping contractor. An additional 14 felt that only the initial inspection should be coupled with a pump-out so that a reasonable inspection can be carried out. The majority of these submitters also requested that subsequent pump-outs then be as required.

Sixteen respondents indicated a preference for pump-outs to be coupled with inspections. Reasons given for this included cost savings for combining inspection and pump-out, with one submitter saying, “it is important that the structural integrity of the tank is inspected for cracks/leaks.”

A three-yearly pump-out is a general rule of thumb used for older-style septic tanks servicing an average-sized family household. A three-yearly pump-out is generally not appropriate for more advanced systems, which may require regular inspection and servicing, often at six-monthly intervals.

Question 11: Do you agree with the proposed critical components for the checklist?

There were 59 responses to this question. Twenty-two respondents agreed completely with the critical components of the checklist, 13 disagreed, and the remainder (24) had suggestions or additions they would like to see included. In all, there was support or conditional support from 46 of the 59 submitters (78 per cent) that gave a response to Question 11.

The suggestions for changes or additions to the critical components of the checklist presented in the discussion document can be bunched into four main groups:

  • a request for specific details to be included in the checklist

  • a general request for more detail

  • suggestions on who should carry out the inspections (linked to Question 16)

  • a request for specific checklists for different system types.

Question 12: Should the proposed standard prescribe a minimum level of treatment for new on-site systems?

Sixty-two comments were received in response to whether an NES should prescribe a minimum level of treatment for new on-site systems. The clear response (74 per cent) from submitters was no. A further five submitters did not clearly state a preference but wanted the type of system and hence the level of treatment to be determined only after a full assessment of the site and the environment. This point was also highlighted by several of the submitters that supported specifying a minimum level of treatment.

Submitters noted that in some locations a simple septic tank and disposal field-type system would work fine if designed and installed appropriately. A simple system (ie, primary treatment) was also considered a practical solution in situations where a lack of electricity would make it impractical or financially impossible to install a more advanced system (eg, back-country huts in the Department of Conservation estate). Comments included:

NO! To make secondary treatment systems mandatory would increase problems and expenses.

Yes as this is what is to be controlled the output of wastewater systems. Should not ban septic tanks. But system type should be dependent on the physical conditions of a site.

3.6 Implementing the proposed standard

The following series of questions sought comments on aspects of the implementation of the proposed standard. Questions sought feedback on where and how the standard could be applied and asked submitters to identify any problems they could foresee with the implementation of the proposal. A high number of comments were received on the questions in this section of the discussion document.

Question 13: Should the proposed standard apply to targeted areas as proposed, or across the whole of New Zealand?

Seventy-two submitters, or more than half the total number of submissions received, commented on this question. Eleven submitters to this question were in opposition to the overall NES proposal while the rest either supported it or were neutral.

Reponses were split between targeting specific areas using a risk-based approach and applying the proposed regime to the whole of New Zealand. The majority of submitters (54 per cent) believe a targeted approach is the best option, 38 per cent opted for applying the NES to the whole of New Zealand, while 8 per cent (five submitters) claimed that the justification for implementing the NES had not been established through the discussion document.

Figure 9: Should the standard apply to targeted areas or the whole of New Zealand?

The pie chart describes the percentage of submissions that want the NES apply to the whole of New Zealand (38 per cent), and those that want to target it to specific areas (54 per cent). The remaining submissions (8 per cent) don’t think that a case for an NES has been made.

Among the responses to the preferred option there were several submitters who stated a secondary preference for whether the proposed NES should be targeted or applied nationally. Some thought the targeted approach should be used, while providing the flexibility to apply the regime to the whole country at the same time. Some submitters in favour of the whole-of-New Zealand approach, on the other hand, suggested that the implementation should be done in phases, addressing higher-risk/problem areas first, followed by the remainder at a later time.

Question 14: Do you agree with the risk assessment methodology and the proposed criteria for identifying targeted areas?

Question 14 sought to gauge people’s thoughts on using a risk-based approach to deciding where to apply the proposed standard. This question leads on from the previous question regarding where to apply the proposed NES, so respondents that indicated a preference for the targeted approach for the proposed standard form the majority of respondents to this question.

Twenty-three submitters agreed with the methodology and criteria for identifying ‘at risk’ areas, commenting, for example, “The target area information list is comprehensive and well rounded”. A further 29 submitters agreed with the methodology and/or criteria but had comments on or requested additions to the criteria. Six submitters disagreed with the methodology and criteria, of which five disagreed on the grounds that the proposed standard should be applied to the whole of New Zealand and not targeted to specific locations.

Recurrent themes regarding the methodology and criteria included the following.

  • The importance of applying the criteria consistently in all regions − clarity in the criteria was requested to ensure national consistency in their application.

  • Linking the risk assessment to existing measures to avoid duplication − for example, one submitter argued for the need to “use existing measures including: Assessments of water and sanitary services under the LGA”.

  • Additional criteria were frequently requested − the socio-economic factors of an area featured most often, followed by shellfish gathering/harvesting sites, although it was unclear from responses to this question how submitters thought socio-economic factors could be factored into the assessment criteria. However, further information on this is covered in the following section on costs and benefits.

One submitter commented that “the criteria are largely based on design factors and not the maintenance and management of systems”. Another highlighted “the initial assessment of the areas where the NES might apply including the option to move to a reticulated community system rather than an inspection system”.

Question 15: Do you see any problems with the implementation and administration of the proposed standard?

Seventy-three submitters responded directly to this question, one of the highest response rates for a question in the discussion document. Submitters identified a significant number of issues they considered would need addressing in order to facilitate effective and efficient implementation and administration of the proposed standard. The following table highlights the recurring points that were made by submitters and the number of submitters that referred to each issue. Most submitters raised several points in their responses.

Table 3: Issues raised by submitters on the implementation and administration of the proposed standard

Issue Number of submissions raising this issue
Roles of TLA and regional council 18
TLAs indicated a clear preference to have the primary role in administering the proposed standard, although several submitters thought that regional councils should still have an oversight role to ensure consistency and to identify where the standard should apply. A more defined role for the district council and the medical officer of health in the implementation process was sought.
Creating additional bureaucracy vs utilising existing systems 14
Submitters that raised this issue questioned the need to create a new regime to manage and monitor the WOF systems when local authorities had existing systems that could be adapted to achieve the same outcomes. For example, one city council commented that “TLAs should be responsible for the administration as it complements the existing work under Building Act and record keeping systems.” Another comment was that a new regime would compound the level of bureaucracy without clarifying the roles of TLAs and regional councils.
Resourcing and cost recovery for inspections 11
There was a close relationship between the preference for TLAs to administer the proposed standard and comments regarding resourcing and cost recovery. TLAs are able to recover costs through rates for activities such as those proposed under the NES, but there is presently no equivalent mechanism under the Local Government Act for regional councils to do so. For example, one submitter commented, “where possible it should be controlled by local bodies which would allow for costs to be recovered in the rating system. “ The issue of resourcing was mentioned in relation to councils having the staff resources or the ability to secure resources to administer the proposed NES.
Costs to homeowners and funding for poor people 11
The costs to homeowners are raised further in the section on costs and benefits and the funding issue (section 3.8 below). The complex issue is first highlighted here in terms of the ability of people and/or communities to afford to fix problems if they are identified through an inspection regime. For example, one iwi noted, “implementation of the standard could trigger financial hardship for individual home owners … where existing systems are considered (by council inspectors) to require replacement or substantial upgrading”.
Sufficient number of qualified inspectors 9
Submitters raised concerns that there would not be sufficient qualified inspectors ready to undertake the inspections when the NES came into force because developing and implementing additional training programmes will take time and require resources. Some regions may be more affected by the lack of appropriately qualified inspectors than others.
Links to existing record systems, especially property files 7
This sub-theme has been pulled out because submitters that commented on this were quite explicit that information should be held on property files so that it would be available and accessible to homeowners and potential property buyers.
Role of Ministry for the Environment 5
The Ministry for the Environment was seen as having a strong role to play in the initial setting up and implementation of the proposed standard. Submitters suggested that this would include technical support, model administration systems that could be adopted (ie, a database), development of a unit standard for accreditation of inspectors, and development and implementation of the training programme for inspectors. One submitter requested that the Ministry prepare and disseminate a comprehensive implementation package.

Question 16: What would be an appropriate training level for inspectors/certifiers?

Forty-eight submitters expressed a preference for the level of training they thought appropriate for inspectors to possess in order for them to carry out inspections. The majority (26) expressed a preference for an Industry Training Organisation or unit standard-type qualification for inspectors. Several submitters also thought that the initial qualification should be complemented by a requirement for regular refresher courses. Other submitters also wanted recognition within any qualification of the past experience of possible inspectors. Several submitters suggested that the level of training required would depend on the type of system that was being inspected, with “Less training for inspecting older septic systems, comprehensive training for inspecting newer systems”.

At the other end of the spectrum were submissions (six) that indicated a preference for simple training to upskill people already working in some aspect of on-site wastewater management. Comments were, for example, “Focus on up skilling existing technicians” and “A half day lecture would suffice to arm people for a walkover.”

3.7 Benefits and costs

The questions in the cost−benefit section of the discussion document sought to determine whether submitters agreed with the analysis provided and whether there was any further information they could provide to help inform the later cost−benefit analysis. The submissions received usually did not address the six specific questions individually under this section, but discussed benefits and costs more generically. All the responses are therefore canvassed under questions 17 and 18.

The initial cost−benefit analysis in the discussion document was based on information available at the time. The calculations were mostly based on real figures provided to the researchers. A decision was made to present the initial cost−benefit analysis based on the factual information available rather than try to estimate costs. The intention was to provoke a response to the analysis and encourage people to provide information they may have that would help us to better reflect the real costs and benefits of the proposal. A large amount of factual information was provided by submitters, which will be used to inform any comprehensive final cost−benefit analysis.

Question 17: Have we accurately reflected the range of costs and benefits …?

There was a clear message by the 65 submitters responding to this question: 51 indicated that no, we had not accurately reflected the range of costs and benefits, while five indicated that, yes, they thought we had. A further nine did not indicate either way, but provided suggestions on additional factors that could be considered.

The clear message was that submitters consider that the costs of the proposal have been underestimated − several submitters used terms such as “significantly underestimated”. Many of the comments related to the estimate of $35 per inspection, which was quoted in the discussion document. Several submitters provided cost estimates for inspections based on current council charges for environment and building inspections. Some examples of inspection costs provided by submitters were as follows:

  • $48 for a car WOF (does not include a home visit by inspector)

  • $140 for a TLA building inspection

  • $258 for a regional council dairy shed inspection

  • A$50 on-site inspection in Australia

  • US$150 on-site inspection in the United States.

Councils in New Zealand that already run registration and inspection programmes have generally licensed the septic tank pump-out contractors to carry out initial inspections at the time of pump-out. There was some doubt whether an inspection system run separately from the pump-out process would be viable.

Figure 10: Have we accurately reflected the range of costs and benefits?

 

The pie chart illustrates that 78 per cent of submissions don’t think that the range of costs and benefits have been accurately reflected in the discussion document. Eight percent think the costs and benefits are accurately reflected, and 14 per cent have not stated it either way.

 

Question 18: Are there any costs and benefits we have overlooked?

Reponses to Questions 18 to 22 have been grouped together here because there was considerable overlap in the comments received on the individual questions. The other questions were:

  1. Do you have information you would like to see included in the cost−benefit analysis that will occur after the submissions are received and analysed?

  2. Are our estimates of costs and benefits accurate?

  3. Do you have information on costs and benefits that could assist the second stage of our assessment (of the impacts of any final proposals)?

  4. Do you have any information on costs and benefits that we have been unable to quantify?

Table 4 provides a summary of the types of costs and benefits that submitters identified as having been overlooked in the analysis provided in the discussion document.

Table 4: Costs and benefits identified by submitters as being overlooked or underestimated in the analysis

Costs Benefits
Initial up-front costs and development costs Improved public health, tourism and water-related industries
Set-up and training costs (including database development) Intangible benefits such as improved quality of life, better health and greater productivity
Covering costs of inspection and maintenance and repair in lower socio-economic / high deprivation communities Public good benefit
Training of new staff due to staff turnover Potential reduction in costs for councils of not providing wastewater treatment plants for non-reticulated areas.
Educating new homeowners with on-site systems Longer life-time of on-site systems through regular maintenance
Costs of consultation on hotspot areas  
Compliance costs  
Costs to the community if rates are raised to cover any compliance and administration expenses not directly recoverable from users.  
Audit and monitoring of inspectors  

Additional issues that submitters thought need to be considered included:

  • a regional breakdown of numbers and/or an indication from regional councils of where they may apply the NES

  • better estimates of the impacts of eating contaminated shellfish

  • how to factor in the costs of inspecting and/or servicing remote or difficult-to-access locations

  • procedures for handling failed systems.

Some submitters provided cost estimates based on their own experiences in councils or businesses for overheads and operating costs that will help inform the final cost−benefit analysis. Some individual submitters also provided figures in relation to the costs they experience for inspections and pump-outs in their areas.

Several responses indicated a preference for where the costs of the NES should lie. Responses ranged from complete ‘user pays’ and full cost recovery, to the suggestion that money to cover the costs of the proposed NES should come out of the general rates because the regime would create a public good that benefited everyone. There was also a middle ground, with one submitter suggesting there should be a public good component to dividing up the costs of the regime. One submitter who preferred full cost recovery from homeowners said, “individuals should no longer be able to use the public environment for private waste disposal.”

Affordability of the scheme and the potential social impact on parts of society that cannot afford repairs was a strong theme in responses to questions about the cost−benefit analysis. This is discussed further in the ‘Special themes’ section below, and is an issue that will require further work before the proposal can be progressed.

3.8 Special themes

3.8.1 Financial assistance

The main message carried through many submissions was: Without financial support the NES will not work successfully. Many people on low incomes would not be able to afford a new system or costly repairs, and therefore financial hardship needs to be considered before the NES is applied.

Eighteen out of 26 unsolicited responses focused on the need to offer financial assistance or funding options (offer a carrot rather than just a stick), such as grants (eg, “MfE to provide 50% of capital costs of repair or replacement in pre1970 systems over and above $5,000 of expenditure,” “advanced payment of benefit”, “Recoverable Assistance for non-beneficiaries”, and “Special Needs that are administered by the Ministry for Social Development”), subsidies, interest-free loans to allow upgrading or replacement, or a rates rebate for low income and demonstrated financial hardship.

There was also council concern over implementation and administration costs, and the desire for financial assistance to cover the initial start-up costs (eg, for carrying out risk assessment and consultation on targeted areas).

The opinions of homeowners were split between opposing an additional set fee on homeowners and opposing the ratepayer carrying the additional costs. Another submission suggested a flat fee for inspectors and a mechanism for keeping fees low. There was also a request to provide more information on available grants. One submitter suggested the Minister consider the link between the NES and funding for wastewater system development to achieve environmental (including health) outcomes.

3.8.2 Managing septage/sludge from pump-out

Six submitters highlighted the issue of managing the increased amount of sludge that may result from requiring more regular pump-outs under a possible NES. Concern was raised that council treatment plants would not be able to cope and would require more treatment capacity and upgrades, which in turn would generate more costs to ratepayers. Another issue that was highlighted in the Bay of Plenty was the lack of consented sites under the RMA for the disposal of waste from on-site systems. The provision of consented sites would need to be sought prior to commencing a large-scale inspection regime. In addition, it was proposed that system owners should keep a record of where their septage has gone and who transported it. Submitters also noted that sucked material other than sludge is causing undue wear and tear on the district screening process, or is dumped at the district council discharge facility.

3.8.3 Responsibility for administering the NES

Twenty-four submitters gave suggestions as to who should administer the NES. A majority (17 submitters, including eight TLAs and three regional councils) favoured TLAs because they already have the administrative systems for managing properties and could more easily recover costs. A subset of those agreed for regional councils to have the oversight role in the overall NES management. Two TLAs agreed that the responsibility should lie with the regional council, but requested mandatory consultation with the TLAs on targeted areas. Explicit reference in regulations to the ability to transfer powers under section 33 of the RMA was requested by three submitters.

Other concerns raised included the inconsistency between the various regional councils in terms of how the NES would be applied and administered, and a model data base was suggested to provide cost savings and ensure national consistency. One submitter proposed having a single point of contact for all complaints to ensure they are followed up and the situation remedied. The need to retain the opportunity for homeowners to source inspectors from the private sector instead of local government was also stated.

 


2  See also Question 15 and the special theme on responsibility for administration of NES, which canvasses all submission responses on this issue.