August 27, 2008

A River of Wrangles


The plan to build a hydro power scheme on Marlborough's Wairau River might have prompted the longest resource consent hearing ever, but it's not over yet. Geoff Collett reports. --------------------

There are clear undercurrents of bluff, bluster and breast- beating swirling here, and hardly surprisingly. The will to win on both sides is unyielding, and the stakes high by any measure.

But perhaps where the saga of the plan to harness Marlborough's Wairau River for hydro-electricity generation is most telling is in chronological terms. Tauranga-based Trustpower's bid for permission to build the network of canals and power stations has turned into the never-ending story, the longest- running resource consent application in the history of resource consents - and still it runs.

A couple of weeks ago, the final scenes of the first act played out with the release of a book-full of conditions that should apply if and when the project is finally built. But in some ways, the epic consent hearing - started in 2006, a year after Trustpower lodged its application for the work - ended with a barely audible whimper. Attention had long-since shifted to the prospect of an appeal to the Environment Court by various of the scheme's opponents, and another lengthy hearing to consider the merits all over again. Nobody expects the court to look at the issue before next year.

If the thought of the clock ticking, the calendar pages turning and the meter running relentlessly on is making Trustpower anxious, its frontman, community relations manager Graeme Purches, isn't letting the brave face slip. The company is convinced of the rightness of its cause and is sure the court will see it that way too.

And really, time isn't exactly against it: its plan is to build the scheme to provide power for Marlborough, to ease the region's reliance on national grid electricity generated in the Waitaki hydro scheme way down south (or in North Island thermal stations, for that matter). There is no competing local project on the horizon and Trustpower remains certain of the need, even if it takes years to realise.

Purches is almost belligerent in his dismissal of the scheme's opponents. Predictably, those opponents can be similarly trenchant. They come in many shapes and sizes: landowners near the Wairau who fear disastrous consequences, fishermen determined to preserve the river for their pastime, environmentalists anxious to protect the river ecology, anti-development campaigners.

Hugh Steadman, the chairman of the Save the Wairau lobby group representing a range of such elements, is surprisingly philosophical about the prospect of having to scrape up yet more tens of thousands of dollars to continue arguing each step of the way with Trustpower. He professes to relish the prospect of an Environment Court hearing - the next act - and the chance, he says, for the plan to finally get the scrutiny it needs.

So far, Trustpower alone has spent something like $2 million on getting the Wairau plan through the consent hearing process. Then again, that is less than 1 percent of the minimum $285 million it is budgeting for the project, which would see 50km of canals constructed to divert part of the Wairau flow through a series of five power stations and generate around 70 megawatts of electricity.

In the scheme of things, it is a modestly sized power scheme and the enormous, sprawling affair the consent process has mutated into might seem out of all proportion.

Purches acknowledges that it is a complicated matter - there are numerous individual consents required, for everything from cutting down trees and carrying out earthworks to diverting river water through canals and turbines - but it has taken "a lot, lot longer than we ever anticipated", certainly compared to other hearings it has been involved in.

He blames politics in part - the amendments to the Resource Management Act made by the Labour Government in its first term to appease the Green Party, which "made it a lot easier for people to block the process". But part of the blame can also be laid at the door of the Marlborough District Council, he says, and the panel of three commissioners it appointed to consider the project.

The proposal attracted something like 1400 individual submissions, split about 60-40 between opponents and supporters, with hearings conducted over 77 days spread through six months. The hearing was then adjourned while the commissioners considered things; a year later, they released a decision approving the plan but calling a further mini-hearing in February this year to consider arguments around possible conditions to control the effects of the work.

It took almost six more months for those conditions to be finalised and released publicly, and by then Fish and Game, the Department of Conservation and Save the Wairau, along with a freshwater aquaculture business, had determined they were taking it to the Environment Court anyway.

The council insists the project was well within its capacity to deal with, although the Marlborough mayor, Alistair Sowman, admits it has been surprised by the time it has taken. The apparent explanation revolves around the complexity and sheer number of individual consents involved, and the detail of conditions attached to those consents. Sowman says they have done a thorough job - "to my mind, there's probably not a lot left for the Environment Court to determine".

Hugh Steadman offers an alternative assessment - now that the whole thing stands to be relitigated, the hearing was "farcical . . . a total waste of time and money".

Both parties also have a weather eye on the political outlook. Purches says National's policy on the Resource Management Act including identifying projects of national significance and setting time limits for these to be processed would be welcome, at least for future projects.

Steadman is wary of the prospect of a new government being more sympathetic to the case for a new hydro development, fearing it could, for example, prevail on DOC to pull back from an appeal.

Purches's sense of supreme confidence around the rightness of Trustpower's cause, and hence its prospects at the Environment Court ("absolutely, categorically nobody has come up with evidence that this scheme's not sustainable"), is based firmly on his conviction that "providing the facts stack up, you will get there".

"The Resource Management Act is based on facts and evidence. Emotion doesn't come into it . . . and that's the thing a lot of these people who have engaged in opposing these things don't understand."

Save the Wairau, though, sees the numbers game as the surest way to succeed. Whatever the legal niceties, Steadman is convinced that local politics, local sympathies - hearts and minds arguments - will ultimately tip the thing.

"At the Environment Court, no matter how legal it is, ultimately it's part of society; 20 percent of the final outcome will be law and 80 percent will be public opinion . . .

"If the politicians know that the people of the country despair at seeing the last remaining rivers being destroyed, then that attitude will work itself down to the Environment Court."

Hence, much of Save the Wairau's tactic from here on will be to step up its political lobbying, targeting members of Parliament and their constituents.

The Wairau scheme loomed large at the local body elections last October, with most Marlborough District Council candidates saying they opposed it - although the practical consequence of that has been at best limited, since elected councillors have had zero input into the formal debate. "We understand it's for the courts to determine. I haven't had any councillors raise it at all ... it's never been debated," says Mayor Sowman.

As dismissive as Purches might be about the numbers game, he is prepared to dabble in it as necessary. Both he and Steadman place their own spin on a Marlborough Express survey of public attitudes to the scheme, conducted earlier this year, which found 39 percent of those surveyed were against the hydro scheme, 23 percent were in support and 28 percent undecided. Steadman points out the biggest group were the opponents; Purches that the opposition does not represent the majority view.

Purches argues that Trustpower wouldn't dare alienate its own customer base in Marlborough (it's the power retailer for about 20,000). "We haven't seen huge opposition to this. If we thought that the majority of people in Marlborough (opposed it), we'd be bloody stupid to proceed with it." Steadman insists that public sympathy is on Save the Wairau's side, much of it expressed privately to group members. "We think we'll win. We've got a huge amount of support in Marlborough."


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