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Council, Govt 'failure' is why Fonterra can discharge toxic wastewater on empty farms — ecologist

Local and central Government is failing to adequately limit the dairy industry’s discharge of wastewater onto land, which puts people’s health and the environment at risk, a freshwater ecologist says. 

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Victoria University’s Mike Joy says there’s an emerging link between elevated nitrate levels in drinking water and colorectal cancer. Source: Breakfast

The assessment, shared by Victoria University professor Mike Joy on Breakfast today, came as RNZ reported a Waikato couple discovered higher-than-acceptable levels of nitrates in their bore drinking water. Fonterra had emptied nearby farms of cows and used the land as tips for its wastewater instead. 

It’s sparked concerns nitrates could be leaching into private drinking water supplies. 

But, Fonterra is within the law to continue discharging its wastewater onto what it calls “cut and carry” farms, where animals are removed from the land so more wastewater can be spread on it. 

The dairy cooperative said it was part of its circular nutrient management system because the wastewater would help the grass grow. Grass on the land is then cut and taken elsewhere as feed. 

But Joy said this was just a case of Fonterra getting rid of its wastewater in an “easy way”. 

“Theoretically, it’s a good idea to recycle nutrients. But what’s happening here is that this is the water that they use to wash down their plants as part of the processing,” he said.

“Their way of treating it or not treating it is to spray it onto the land.” 

The idea is that the grass will take up the nutrient, Joy said. But groundwater testing showed “dangerously high” nitrate levels of about 10 to 12 milligrams a litre. Before intensive farming in New Zealand, nitrate levels were about one quarter of a milligram per litre. 

The maximum level allowed under the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management is 2.4 milligrams per litre, and “even that is a compromise”, Joy said. 

He said emerging evidence shows consuming too much nitrate can lead to a greater risk of colorectal canter. 

In Canterbury, where Joy has carried out research, he warned of a “huge looming issue” with colorectal cancer as most of the population drank from aquifers that had elevated nitrate levels. 

Meanwhile, Fonterra said more research into the link to the cancer is needed. 

Joy said wastewater leaching could also lead to more algal blooms and turn lakes eutrophic, which kill aquatic life because of a lack of dissolved oxygen. 

“We put human health before bank balances. We have to measure both sides of the equation.”

Cut and carry farms aren’t new either, he added, as elevated levels of nitrate are usually caused by the nutrient in cow urine or wastewater from factories. 

“It’s part of a whole dairy industry that leaches nitrate into our waterways. And we have a freshwater crisis in New Zealand because of the dairy industry.”

But little is being done about it. Joy said it is because the dairy industry has too much influence, and local and central government could be taking more action. Analysis by RNZ found few councils monitored breaches to trade water consents. 

“They turn a blind eye on all sorts of things,” he said of councils. 

“It’s a failure of central and local government. Local government never enforces the rules that they have at the moment. It’s a free-for-all. 

“It’s like having speed limits on the road and having no cops out there. And so everybody just pushes limits 'cause they know they can.”

Joy said intensive farming needed to be reduced to address the issue. 

He said it isn’t “that hard” for factories to stop discharging water at rates that risk polluting aquifers. 

“The longer they [the Government] leave this, the worse it is for farmers; they just get deeper and deeper in trouble.”