New Zealand winery escapes water pollution charges with slap on the wrist

Marlborough-based Babich Wines, which contaminated the drinking water of six neighbours with poisonous waste, has avoided conviction of two charges of pollution after showing “extraordinary remorse”.

The Marlborough-based wine company made personal contact with all the affected households.

Babich Wines had installed a new grape marc pad in 2016 that was designed to store 100 tons of skins, seeds and stems left over from each harvest.

However, it was later found to be inadequate after it leaked into the ground, contaminating wells that provided neighbouring residences with clean drinking water.

Engineering firm Powell Bennett Civil Construction had been contracted to build the pad in 2014 with viticulturist John Wayne Sowman.

No tests were made before its use, however, and the leachate seeped into shallow groundwater bores.

Three of the six households affected complained to the Marlborough District Council of foul tasting water, rotten egg odour pervading through their homes and slime in their water tanks.

One household had a sample tested by Hill Laboratories, which found unsafe levels of manganese and iron.

The western end of the pad was lined with clay, but the south side was not. An outflow pipe ran into two plastic tanks, which leaked if they were full.

Babich lined the pad with polythene, following advice from the council.

After officers visited a second time, however, they found marc was being stored on stony ground outside the pad, and leachate was spilling over the edge of the pad.

The winemaker then covered the grape leftover with silage wrap, diverted storm water away from the pad, and provided clean water to the affected households, two months after contamination was noticed.

Leachate from the untested marc pad has caused drinking water to be deemed unsafe for consumption.

The council’s tests of three households showed unsafe levels of iron and manganese, with one household also showing unsafe levels of the highly poisonous arsenic.

Fleur Tiernan, an independent environmentalist, said the leachate was mobilising metals and transferring them into the groundwater.

After this, Babich was ordered to remove all grape marc and leachate from its site by 9 September. Water quality improved, but drinking water was affected for the 12 months following.

Court Repentance

The company pleaded guilty to two charges of pollution in the Environment Court. The council’s lawyer Antoinette Besier said it had been a distressing time for the affected neighbours.

Some families were positive about Babich, saying they “behaved as good corporate citizens” in their response to the contamination.

“They went out of their way to make personal contact with each of us, and do everything possible to correct the problem,” they added.

The defendant’s attorney Jonathan Eaton QC applied for a discharge without conviction, citing the extreme remorse the company showed.

Babich’s lawyer Jonathan Eaton QC appealed against the convictions due to the effort gone to by the company to remedy its mistakes.

Eaton argued that a conviction could lead to losses of several million dollars in exports, and forced downsizing as a result.

CEO David Babich told the court that distributors had seen the charges and were questioning him at a trade show in Europe.

He described the pollution as a “disaster and completely opposed to our intended endeavour”.

Babich himself had met with the affected households at a restorative justice meeting in August, along with the company’s chairman George Green, where they agreed to get rid of the pad, pay the neighbours expenses of NZ$4485.95 and arrange a workshop on grape marc management to educate the region’s industry.

The company also reimbursed the council of all costs for analysts and experts employed in the process, along with a large contribution for other costs.

The payouts totalled around NZ$140,000.

Judge John Hassan said the company was careless, not reckless in their failure to adequately test the pad. He also agreed to discharge the company without conviction given its clean record, guilty pleas and “extraordinary remorse”.

“This is Babich’s first offence, committed out of sound environmental intentions and in a context of ‘new science’.”

Viticulturist John Wayne Sowman’s case was adjourned to 15 March 2019

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