It is late afternoon. You and two friends are walking along a beach which is midway between two towns on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. You spot a 20 litre blue plastic container left by the ebbing tide. Do you:
- walk on. You didn’t put the container there, so it’s none of your concern.
- remark on the container and then walk on.
- approach the container and then walk on.
- examine the container closely.
Examine the container.
You notice that this is a sealed 20 litre container full of liquid. It has a partially obscured label. The label includes the following text:
Drew Marine. Corrosive 8. Basic inorganic N. O. S. Contains potassium h. Causes severe burns. Risk of serious … Do not breathe …
- open the container to see what’s in it.
- move the container above the high tide line and notify the authorities.
- carry the container (it’s heavy) to the nearest public rubbish bin several kilometres away.
- empty the contents on to the beach.
Move the container above the high tide line and notify the authorities.
- notify the Horowhenua District Council where the entrance path to the beach is located.
- notify the Kapiti District Council where the town to the south of the beach is located.
- notify the Greater Wellington Region Council whose area contains the town to the south of the beach.
- notify the Horizons Region Council whose area contains the town to the north of the beach.
And that’s where this twistaplot adventure becomes really complex, and where I discover I totally don’t understand how New Zealand’s system of local government works.
You see, friends and I found the container of Corrosive 8 while we were walking the dogs the other day. At some point along the walk (perhaps marked by the red and white striped post I’ve spotted up in the sand dunes, and perhaps not) we cross from Horowhenua into Kapiti. It’s hard to know exactly where that boundary is, and quite frankly, as a citizen I don’t really see why I need to know. If I’m buying property it comes up naturally, but when I’m walking the dogs, well, who cares?
So, since we live not far from the beach, firmly in Horowhenua, I used their contact form to tell them about the container of dangerous stuff on the beach. I included the photo of the container’s label. Then I realised it was probably out of office hours, being 5.10 pm on a Friday, and since I considered the matter urgent I rang them.
About an hour later I received a call from a very pleasant chap called Phil who works for the Greater Wellington Region Council. He told me he’d been studying a map, and had determined from my report that the container was in the Horizons Region Council jurisdiction, so he actually wasn’t allowed to deal with the problem.
By then it was dark anyway, and since we’d moved the container above high tide there should be little harm that could come from leaving matters till morning. I offered to meet him or someone in the morning to show him exactly where to find the container.
The next morning Phil rang again and we spent a little longer discussing boundaries. Initially Phil seemed to be suggesting I should call Horizons as the beach is a shared resource so falls into their jurisdiction. Then I pointed out I’d reported it to Horowhenua, they’d passed it on to him at greater Wellington, and perhaps he would be a better person to call Horizons as he’d have the contacts. We agreed he’d do that.
Today we went that way on our beach walk again and the container was gone. It shouldn’t be that it drifted away with the tide. It may be that some other beach visitor carried it off. Maybe a local authority worker removed it for safe disposal. I may never know, though I’ll ask during office hours for a report back on the case number I was given.
Mainly though what has concerned me is that this seemed to be so hard to deal with. I was honestly shocked that Horowhenua had passed this off to Greater Wellington to handle, and that they then had to study maps to see if they could handle it.
As a member of the general public I think it shouldn’t be up to me to somehow magically know where invisible boundaries lie, nor to somehow know which particular authority would handle this particular matter.
This wasn’t terrible. They didn’t require me to know all these things and ultimately someone did something, but it seemed to be a process full of stumbling blocks.
What I expected to happen was that I report it to the Council and then within say 24 hours the problem was solved and the dangerous good were disposed of. I could see them coming back to me for clarification of location or other factual details. All the other wrangling over whose responsibility it was should have happened behind the scenes, ideally after the fact.
Perhaps these territorial wrangles are why the dead cow I reported after a major storm in June last year was never removed from the beach. Nor did anyone contact me about it either. It’s still there, decomposing slowly, though at least the stench has gone …