Local Government Magazine

A career in cleaning up

Sector director for water at Tonkin + Taylor, Tony Cussins specialises in contamination. His years of experience have seen him called to provide his expert input into many projects, most prominently the Havelock North outbreak and the subsequent reforms to the water industry. By Mary Searle Bell.

Tony is a busy man. He proves hard to pin down as a pressing lead contamination issue in Otago calls him away from our scheduled interview more than once.

“The contamination issue in Dunedin is typical of the way these things emerge – without prior warning.”

The Dunedin City Council found the contamination when testing water corrosivity, which determined the water’s ability to leach heavy metals from plumbing fixtures.

Tony says old, cast-iron pipes with lead fittings in the network were found to be primarily to blame.

“Currently, there are standards related to the acceptable level of lead permitted in drinking water, but no requirement to routinely test for it. Fortunately, the new compliance rules will fix this.”

Of course, he is talking about the reforms underway in the water sector and the big push to improve water services throughout the country.

This is something he’s been involved in right from the very start – from the campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North that started it all, the inquiry that followed, right through to the regulatory reform process, working firstly with the Ministry of Health and more recently Taumata Arowai, as well as assisting a number of councils with understanding how to meet the new regulations.

“We’re shaping up to have something that will be international best practice. The new Water Services Act and Drinking Water Standards will not look remotely like the legislation it replaces.

“I completely support the need for, and purpose of the Three Waters reforms, including the move towards aggregation of three waters services. We need to do this to achieve economies of scale, and to provide safe and cost-effective drinking water for everyone.

“Many medium to larger suppliers, e.g. Watercare, Wellington Water, and Hastings District Council will only have to make small adjustments to its practices, but for the smaller regions to deliver the same level of service without encumbering them with crippling debt requires them to come together.”

Tony clearly has found his passion in contaminated water – be it chemical or microbial. But it is a stellar career that very nearly wasn’t.

“I started a science degree at Massey, but while they pushed me towards genetics, I preferred the earth sciences. So, I changed to Victoria University, which specialises in earth sciences, and studied hydrogeology.”

Tony’s first job was as a groundwater hydrologist with the Wellington Regional Council, looking at water resource management, modelling, and assessing the groundwater resources in Lower Hutt, which has an important aquifer for the Wellington municipal water supply.

While with the council, they sponsored his master’s degree, studying at night while working full time.

I remember the moment I heard about it – I had just landed from Australia and got the message: ‘If you’re in Auckland, please get the next plane to Hawkes Bay’.

“It was very challenging, but I thought it was important to get a good start in my career.”

In 2006, he moved to Auckland to Tonkin + Taylor as a contaminant hydrogeologist.

“That was the key change that set me on the path to Havelock North.

“One of the first things the company did was to send me to the United States to get specialist training in health risk assessment – covering things like chemicals and pathogens in soils and water – and I became one of their specialist risk assessors.”

Notable projects in the early part of his career included securing approvals for the agrichemical remediation at Mapua in 2003. There, an old herbicide manufacturing operation had buried chemicals on site which were “leaching groundwater and the adjacent marine environment.”

“I was working for the contractor selected to do the clean-up. My role was to lead a team of 16 technical experts to get the resource consents to do what was required. It was a big project just to get the approvals to do the work, do it safely, and do it how it should be done.”

Tony also did a lot of work related to the oil industry and worked extensively with Carter Holt Harvey on the remediation of 20 of its sites around New Zealand as well as building of a hazardous waste facility at Kinleith, which was designed to securely contain the waste from these sites.

During this time, he steadily worked his way up the ranks at Tonkin + Taylor to lead its Contaminated Land Services, obtaining a major shareholding and joining the board of the company.

“The combination of technical, managerial and governance roles was very interesting at the time but had its own challenges – but very rewarding.

In 2012 he was asked to go to Melbourne to run Tonkin + Taylor’s Australian business. The work there involved a significant portfolio of work for Mobil, remediating 30 contaminated sites across Victoria and Tasmania.

“Each site was pretty challenging, both technically and from a resourcing perspective. Some were very heavily contaminated and some less so – they were highly variable.”

The work continues in Australia, as some of these sites are yet to be closed out, however Tony returned to New Zealand in late 2016, right in the middle of the Havelock North outbreak.

“I actually took up the lead role on this project while I was still living in Australia, which introduced some very interesting personal and logistical challenges.

“I remember the moment I heard about it – I had just landed from Australia and got the message: ‘If you’re in Auckland, please get the next plane to Hawkes Bay’.”

For the following six months, Tony commuted across the Tasman, flying to Melbourne on Friday nights and back on Sunday afternoons, until he and his family were finally able to move back to Auckland permanently.

His report for Tonkin + Taylor on the contamination was key in the inquiry that followed the outbreak.

Subsequently, he has been heavily involved in the overhaul of the regulations and is positive about the changes ahead.

In the past decade, Tony has led a wide range of water infrastructure projects in New Zealand, Australia and the Asia-Pacific region, and helped build Tonkin + Taylor’s
Three Waters services.

“It’s been incredibly fulfilling, and my reward is to help bring the new reforms to fruition in New Zealand.” LG

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