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No consequences likely for kauri hunter who ruptured Auckland's main fuel pipeline causing estimated $48m in damage

The man deemed responsible for disrupting Auckland's fuel supply for 10 days, causing hundreds of flight delays and causing an estimated $48 million of damage is unlikely to face any charges.

The government inquiry into the 2017 rupture of the fuel pipe from the Marsden refinery was released this morning, clearing Refinery NZ of any wrongdoing, and made a raft of suggestions to improve the resilience of Auckland's fuel supply.

The report also revealed considerable details about the man investigators were satisfied was responsible, who has never been named publicly.

A private investigator was hired on behalf of the inquiry to talk to people in the area, and they were able to establish considerable detail around how the damage to the pipe was caused in 2014.

The report concluded that they were satisfied they had identified the man responsible for the damage to the pipeline, which led to an estimated $25 million repair bill and a loss of $23 million of GDP.

However, they stopped short of making any findings in terms of criminal liability, and noted that enforcement measures in this area are "weak".

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The 2017 rupture caused massive disruption and cost millions of dollars. Source: 1 NEWS

'THE MAN DID NOT GIVE HIS NAME'

The Marsden pipeline is laid through many tracts of private land as it makes its way from Marsden Point to Auckland, and the landowners are bound by Resource Management Act restrictions on what they can and cannot do above the pipeline.

Specifically, they can't dig any deeper than 0.375m without consent, or do anything on the property which could endanger the pipeline or its operation.

The property where the damage took place is a rural lifestyle block near Ruakākā, just south of Marsden Point, which was bought as bare land in October of 2013.

Soon after buying the property, the owners moved a house onto it with the intention of doing it up - they also kept some cattle and horses on the block, but didn't live there all the time.

Kauri prospecting is an established industry in Northland. The ancient wood, preserved in peat swamps for millenia, fetches a very high price due to its unique grain and colouration.

"The landowner told us that, shortly after the house had been moved there, a man approached him while he was at the property one evening," the inquiry report reads.

"The man did not give his name.

"He asked if he could 'scratch around' to look for swamp kauri logs on the property and indicated what any logs could be worth," the report says.

"This man was a contractor who would try to sell the swamp kauri he extracted and share the proceeds with the landowner.

"The landowner was interested, because he needed money to do up the house and thought there might be timber that he could use as well - he said that the man could look around."

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The rupture, along a pipeline from Marsden Point to Auckland, caused massive disruption in 2017. Source: 1 NEWS

The landowner told the investigator he was well aware of the pipeline running through his property, and there were signs at the gate and painted fenceposts to indicate its location.

He said he made it very clear to the contractor that the pipeline was there, and warned him not to dig in its vicinity.

"The [contractor] told our investigator that he was not warned in this way," the report says.

"We assessed the credibility of each person and considered that the landowner's recollection was likely to be more accurate."

A 16-ton excavator similar to the one understood to have been used at the property in Ruakākā. Source: ab2000.co.uk

A few days later, the contractor had a large, 16-tonne digger brought to the block, and began digging holes to look for logs. He found several.

A neighbour reported seeing the digger being operated in the area of the pipeline between August 26 and August 28.

The neighbour said they stopped their car and tried to signal to the operator to stop - but they were unsure whether or not they noticed, because they didn't stop.

"He [the neighbour] stopped at the top of the driveway to try to call the 0800 number on the sign there that warned about the RAP, to let them know what was happening, but the call did not connect," the report reads.

When the landowner returned to his property some days later, he was angry because of the large holes left all over the place, as well as kauri logs sitting in his field, making it unsafe for his animals.

"He confirmed that there was a big hole near the pipeline, perhaps about 1 to 1.5 metres deep and over a large area," the report says.

The landowner could not see the pipe in the hole, and the report concluded the contractor likely put some soil back over top after causing damage to it.

The landowner had his own small digger, and used it to fill in the holes as best he could, and his partner called Kauri Ruakaka complaining about the holes.

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That's the word from a government working group looking at every possible option. Source: 1 NEWS

The manager of the company brought the same digger back some time later, and smoothed over the holes.

The inquiry found that the damage to the pipe was consistent with being hit by a large digger, and it was gouged several times.

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That's according to leading infrastructure experts responding to the rupture of the jet fuel pipeline to Auckland. Source: 1 NEWS

"The gouge made by the digger reduced the pressure the pipe could withstand, so that over time, a crack associated with the gouge propagated, leading to the eventual rupture," the report reads.

THE MYSTERY CONTRACTOR

The report does not name the contractor, but strongly infers they had not been entirely honest when initially speaking to investigators.

The man initially told Northland Regional Council investigators that he didn't remember being at the site, but later admitted to the inquiry investigator he had been there, and had dug in the area of the pipe.

"Our investigator spoke to the person who it seemed was likely to have been operating the digger," the report reads.

"When NRC (Northland Regional Council) had spoken to this person during their investigation in 2017, he had said that he could not remember being there or working on the property.

"However, he confirmed to our investigator that he had been using the digger to look for logs on the property in August 2014 and that he had operated the digger in the area over the pipeline.

"He stated that he had only smoothed out the land in that area and he had not struck the pipe."

Despite the contractor's statements, the inquiry concluded that he was the person most likely to have caused the damage between August 24-26.

"We concluded that it was highly likely that the pipeline had been struck by the contractor who operated the digger in the easement area between 26 and 28 August 2014.

"We think it is more likely than not that he knew what had happened, because the pipeline must have been struck quite hard and the impact would have caused noise and vibration.

"The sound of striking a metal pipe would have been quite different from hitting a buried log."

It was specifically noted that the inquiry "could not inquire into, or report on, issues of criminal or civil liability".

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There is a lack of facts for locals evacuated after the Marsden Point jet fuel pipeline bust, on when they can return. Source: 1 NEWS

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

Refining New Zealand has legal mechanisms called "easements" over the land where the pipeline is buried - this gives them the right to come onto the land inspect and maintain the pipe.

It also puts restrictions on what the landowner can do on the land - specifically, any digging deeper than 0.375 metres is restricted without consent.

It also has a catch-all clause prohibiting landowners from "doing anything on the land that could endanger the pipeline or inhibit its operation".

One of the recommendations of the report was that the government develops legislation to give the pipe owner and operator - as well as Police - "greater power to intervene to stop unauthorised activity" as well as creating "specific criminal offences" for endangering the pipe.

The inquiry heard "strong views" from Refinery NZ and First Gas that the pipeline needs better legal protection, including creating a legal duty to report damage to infrastructure, and creating a criminal offence of wilfully or recklessly damaging critical infrastructure.

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Refining NZ chief executive Sjoerd Post says signs near the pipe warn 'No Digging' but more protection is needed. Source: 1 NEWS

"We agree that this incident has highlighted that the enforcement systems and sanctions are weak, if someone ignores the restrictions on activity over the RAP," the report reads.

The inquiry pointed to laws enacted in 2009 in New South Wales after unauthorised digging and drilling work caused two major power outages in Sydney, saying they could be a useful precedent for reform.

Under that law, someone who damages critical infrastructure can face up to five years in prison, as well as being liable to pay compensation to the infrastructure owner.

"In our view, the Government should consider legislation to create an equivalent statutory regime to protect critical infrastructure in New Zealand."

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An aerial view of the leak site at Ruakākā, showing a pool of jet fuel seeping out of the pipe. Source: Supplied