The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) board of inquiry hearings into the controversial Hawkes Bay Ruataniwha dam proposal (aka the Tukituki catchment scheme) took an interesting turn late last week with board chairman Justice Chisholm raising the possibility that the decision on the project could be delayed due to concerns that the schemes promoter, the Hawkes Bay Regional Council (HBRC), had not adequately consulted with local iwi. This was a glimmer of hope for those who have opposed the scheme and the process followed by the HBRC thus far.
Justice Chisholm’s comments are important because the Ruataniwha dam is not the only thing being tested here. The entire board of inquiry process, where projects deemed to be ‘nationally significant’ are called in by the Government and put through this new nine month fast-track process, is also under scrutiny.
This process is currently being tested in the Supreme Court as the first EPA board of inquiry decision, which last February allowed Malaysian company NZ King Salmon to build four new salmon farms in the Marlborough Sounds in scenic and recreational areas where aquaculture is currently prohibited, is challenged.
In the case of Ruataniwha the HBRC proposal is to build a dam and create a 7km-long reservoir lake on the Makaroro River as part of a planned $265 million irrigation scheme for the nearby Ruataniwha Plains.The board of inquiry is considering two components related to the scheme. The first relates to the creation and operation of the dam structure, storage reservoir and canal system. The second relates to the HBRC’s Plan Change 6, which proposes new policies for implementing a nutrient management framework and water allocation regime.
It is the second component that has drawn the most criticism and concern. Under the proposed changes the HBRC is proposing a “single nutrient management approach” where water quality limits and targets are based on measuring phosphorus levels only.
Opponents of the scheme point out that a “dual nutrient” approach, controlling levels of nitrogen as well as phosphorus, is crucial for the health of the river catchment. The Environmental Defence Society presented compelling expert evidence showing that a single nutrient management approach would not effectively reduce nuisance periphyton (the slime and algae found on the beds of streams and rivers).
Unfortunately government departments, such as the Department of Conservation, who would normally evaluate and submit on such a proposal “chose” not to do so in the case of Ruataniwha. This meant that the burden fell to NGOs, iwi, local businesses and individuals to do this work. The questions around whether or not Conservation Minister Nick Smith muzzled his department and vetoed their opposition to the scheme made it all the more crucial that the board of inquiry process be completely above board and not just a rubber stamping exercise.
Labour has been concerned about the role of the EPA since it was established in 2011. During the committee stages in Parliament Labour proposed an amendment to its legislation that would have made “environmental protection” one of the roles and purposes of the “Environmental Protection Authority” and the Government voted it down. That speaks volumes.
There is much at stake here for the Government, the EPA, and the board of inquiry system. In the case of Ruataniwha inadequate consultation with iwi is but one of a large number of concerns about the genuine nature of consultation and the fairness of the process.
If the board of inquiry wanted to delay the decision, by requesting an extension to the nine month statutory timeframe, it would require the approval of Government to do so because the board is operating under legislation requiring it to work to the nine-month deadline which runs until early April. Ministers Adams and Smith would be wise to accept such a request.