Published in Hawke’s Bay Today on 12 July.
Environment Minister Amy Adams and Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith announced their Board of Inquiry (BOI) for the Ruataniwha Dam and Plan Change 6 for the Tukituki catchment chosen this week. It is the 13th such hearing panel Ministers have established using the “call in“ procedures for nationally significant projects in the Resource Management Act (RMA). In all cases the Boards have approved the projects, though usually with recommendations to reduce some of their environmental impacts.
The Ruataniwha Board of Inquiry includes a former National MP Alec Neill, a dam construction engineer, three lawyers, and a High Court judge. The panel is top heavy with lawyers but has no one with water quality, ecological or similar technical environmental expertise.
That’s a major gap given the scale of the Ruataniwha dam and irrigation scheme’s likely impacts on the Makaroro river and the Tukituki catchment. Irrigation facilitates agricultural intensification which has major implications for water quality in both aquifers and rivers with increased leaching of nutrients, and faecal and sediment contamination from overland runoff.
In 2010 Dr Smith sacked former National MP and former Environment Canterbury chair Alec Neill and myself as elected regional councillors on Environment Canterbury allegedly because National Ministers were not confident in councillors’ ability to manage the region’s rivers, lakes and aquifers. Alec Neill appointment to the panels says some interesting things about what Ministers want for water management in Hawke’s Bay.
The increasing use of hearing panels chosen and appointed by Ministers is politicising RMA decision making.
The public could have more confidence in a robust and independent RMA process for the Ruataniwha dam if the consent applications were decided by the Environment Court (using the direct referral process under the RMA) rather than a panel chosen by Ministers.
The Environment Court has specialist expertise is suited to sound decision-making on hard and complex issues. It has had a vital role in make planning decisions on electricity generation, roading and other infrastructure projects worth millions of dollars. These cases involve complex economic, environmental, social and cultural issues and technical evidence which the Court has the expertise and capacity to decide. Above all the Court is independent and objective. Ministers have no ability to choose who hears particular cases.
The Ruataniwha process is also flawed because a Board of Inquiry has a nine month deadline to deliver its report and decision. This creates severe time pressures throughout the process.
Public submissions on the Ruataniwha resource consents and the changes to the regional plan opened on 6 July. They close a mere four weeks later on 2 August. This is ridiculously short for public consultation on such a major project. It is too little time for the public and potential submitters to come to grips with the policy changes to a regional plan as well as 17 resource consent applications and the suite of supporting documents.
The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s approach to the Ruataniwha project has been one of crash and burn. The Council and its CEO have pushed onwards in haste. There has been scant opportunity for thorough public scrutiny and discussion of the project and its environmental and economic impacts; or the wisdom of sinking more than $80 million of ratepayer funds into the scheme; and increasing the Regional Council’s debt by a massive 530 % ( the highest percentage change in council debt in New Zealand) to nearly a $100 million by 2022 to help fund it.
The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council has aggressively promoted the Ruataniwha scheme, instead of acting as an independent environmental regulator. This has created another major flaw in the Board of Inquiry process. It means there is no sizeable agency to do what would normally be the Council’s job of providing independent and objective advice on the application to the Board.
Council staff and consultants who highlight the scheme’s environmental impacts in their evidence to the Board could jeopardise their future employment prospects with the Council, given their employer’s enthusiasm for the scheme.
It is not good enough for the Board to have depend on community and public interest organisations and members of the public such as to provide an independent assessment of and evidence on the scheme.