Rachael’s death: Still no swim ban

Power com­pany says ban needed to pre­vent another tragedy

Herald on Sunday - - IN OTHER NEWS - Jared Savage

Swim­mers con­tinue to risk their lives in a dan­ger­ous stretch of wa­ter be­low the Ara­ti­a­tia Dam de­spite new safety bar­ri­ers and warn­ing signs put up after a young woman was swept to her death.

A com­plete ban on swim­ming in the Waikato River be­low the Ara­ti­a­tia Dam is needed to ram home the risk and help stop another tragedy like the death of Rachael de Jong, says power com­pany Mer­cury En­ergy, which op­er­ates the dam.

In writ­ten sub­mis­sions on a draft by­law before the Waikato Re­gional Coun­cil, Mer­cury En­ergy says the coun­cil al­ready has the power to pro­hibit swim­ming near hy­dro dams in the cur­rent Nav­i­ga­tion Safety By­law.

But the by­law re­view pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to make the swim­ming ban “ex­plicit”, as peo­ple are ig­nor­ing the warn­ing signs and safety bar­ri­ers put in place since de Jong’s death, according to Mer­cury En­ergy’s sub­mis­sion.

“This high­lights the need for more clear and spe­cific di­rec­tion in re­la­tion to the ap­pli­ca­tion of the hy­dro dam safety zones, in­clud­ing Ara­ti­a­tia.

“It is there­fore im­per­a­tive in our view that this clar­ity is achieved prior to sum­mer, which is rapidly ap­proach­ing.”

A com­plete ban on swim­ming was one of the strong rec­om­men­da­tions by Coro­ner Wal­lace Bain, who in­ves­ti­gated the cir­cum­stances lead­ing to the death of de Jong.

The 21-year-old was swim­ming with six friends about 200m be­low the Ara­ti­a­tia Dam, just north of Taupo¯ , on Wai­tangi Day 2017 when the flood­gates opened.

Within min­utes, the tran­quil wa­ter turned into a tor­rent.

Hor­ri­fied tourists could do noth­ing but watch as the phys­io­ther­apy stu­dent and her friends were trapped on a rock and dived to safety, one by one, as the wa­ter rose around them.

Although de Jong scram­bled to safety, she put her­self back in harm’s way to help oth­ers and was swept down­stream. Her brav­ery was hailed by the coro­ner, and de Jong’s self­less­ness was recog­nised as the Her­ald’s New Zealan­der of the Year Peo­ple’s Choice in 2018.

In his in­quest find­ings re­leased in Septem­ber 2018, Coro­ner Bain

“strongly” rec­om­mended Mer­cury, the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion, and the Waikato Re­gional Coun­cil meet to dis­cuss how swim­ming could be banned, even if a law change was needed.

The dam flood­gates are opened four times a day in sum­mer for “tourist spills” — fill­ing the rapids for vis­i­tors to see in a nat­u­ral state — which are part of Mer­cury En­ergy’s re­source con­sent for the power sta­tion.

Sirens warn of the im­pend­ing re­lease of wa­ter, as well as signs in the of­fi­cial Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion carpark and tracks to the fenced view­ing ar­eas.

How­ever, de Jong and her friends parked in a layby on the side of the road and walked down a well-worn, un­of­fi­cial track to the river.

They would have walked past a warn­ing sign, but it had been stolen two weeks before and not re­placed.

Other swim­mers had been caught un­awares in the river before and more could be done to stop another tragedy, wrote Bain.

“It also seems clear to the court that swim­ming in the area should be ab­so­lutely pro­hib­ited and that is sim­ply demon­strated by the in­ter­views [with the sur­vivors],” wrote Bain.

“They are smart, in­tel­li­gent young peo­ple but in essence had no idea of what to ex­pect and on that ba­sis were very much lulled into a false sense of se­cu­rity.

“If the group that were caught on this oc­ca­sion were not able to sense the im­mi­nent dan­ger with all that was then in place, then it is clearly pos­si­ble that this could hap­pen again, es­pe­cially as it is a tourist area.”

Safety bar­ri­ers and new warn­ing signs were erected after de Jong’s death, but the Waikato Re­gional

Coun­cil has not taken any steps to­wards a swim­ming ban — which her fa­ther has la­belled a “cop out”.

The coun­cil dis­agrees with

Mer­cury’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion that it al­ready has the le­gal power to pro­hibit swim­ming within 200m, ei­ther side, of any hy­dro dam struc­ture.

It has taken the view that the clause Mer­cury refers to was de­signed to stop swim­mers get­ting near a hy­dro dam to avoid “conflict” with main­te­nance ves­sels.

“As main­te­nance ves­sels can­not en­ter the rapids, we can­not legally ex­tend the swim­ming ban to in­clude this area. There is presently no agency that has the le­gal re­spon­si­bil­ity for con­trol­ling swim­mers,” WRC mar­itime and farm­ing ser­vices man­ager Ni­cole Bother­way pre­vi­ously told the Her­ald on Sun­day.

“Rachael’s tragic death has high­lighted how dan­ger­ous this area is and we con­tinue to work closely with our part­ners to in­crease aware­ness of the dan­gers to pre­vent oth­ers swim­ming in this area.”

This has not stopped peo­ple from swim­ming be­low the dam, Mer­cury En­ergy pointed out in its sub­mis­sions on a new draft by­law.

Rachael’s fa­ther, Kevin de Jong, sup­ports Mer­cury’s push for a total ban on swim­ming be­low the dam, which he be­lieves is nec­es­sary to re­in­force to the pub­lic just how dan­ger­ous the wa­ter­way is.

He was frus­trated at the in­ac­tion so far, but did not want to com­ment be­yond what he had al­ready said.

“It’s a cop out and very typ­i­cal of bu­reau­crats. This is just rub­bish,” de Jong pre­vi­ously told the Her­ald on Sun­day.

“How hard can it be? If you can’t amend the by­law, just put an en­tirely new ban in place. If a coun­cil can make a by­law to make dog own­ers pick up dog poo, they can ban swim­ming in a dan­ger­ous spot.”

Sub­mis­sions on the draft by­law closed on Wed­nes­day.

It also seems clear to the court that swim­ming in the area should be ab­so­lutely pro­hib­ited . . . They are smart, in­tel­li­gent young peo­ple but in essence had no idea of what to ex­pect and on that ba­sis were very much lulled into a false sense of se­cu­rity.

Coro­ner Wal­lace Bain

Photo / File

Rachael de Jong died aged 21, swept down­stream when the Ara­ti­a­tia Dam flood­gates opened.

Photo / File

Kevin de Jong sup­ports Mer­cury’s push for a total ban on swim­ming be­low the Ara­ti­a­tia Dam.

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