The HB Regional Council is plowing ahead with its $600 million dam scheme, even as more voices join those who have been trying to slow down the Council’s process in the interest of environmental and financial prudence.

If HBRC sticks to its stated plan, by the time you are reading this article, HBRC’s investment company (HB Regional Investment Company – HBRIC) will have formally requested the Environment Minister to ‘call-in’ its various consent applications to proceed with the CHB dam. In tandem, HBRC itself will officially ‘notify’ its water quality and allocation plan for the Tukituki, and then ask for that plan to be ‘called-in’ as well.

A ‘call-in’ means that the Environment Minister determines that these matters should be decided by (in this case) an appointed Board of Inquiry as opposed to going through the normal local submission, hearings and (if needed) Environment Court appeal process.

These two inter-related initiatives, if approved by the Board of Inquiry, will set the course for the Tukituki catchment for decades.

Many in the community argue that these proposals are moving too fast, and have not been properly presented to the people of Hawke’s Bay, who will need to live with the financial and environmental consequences of this scheme, before handing off key decisions to Wellington.

For example, businessman Colin Crombie, writing recently in Hawke’s Bay Today on behalf of Friends of the Tukituki, called for a ‘time out’ in the process.

He argued: “Throughout the so-called collaborative process, HBRC has failed to provide pertinent science and economic information in a complete or timely fashion. And as information does trickle out, the questions and doubts multiply, as faulty assumptions become apparent. Instead of genuine consultation, the regional council has rushed to meet an arbitrary schedule that belies the environmental and financial intricacies of a projected $600 million scheme – the biggest infrastructure investment our region has ever contemplated.

“Perhaps the proposed scheme might ultimately meet objectives that all parties could endorse. However, today, with all the uncertainties that persist, no reasonable person in Hawke’s Bay can make that judgment.

“A scheme of this magnitude and potential significance must have a clear mandate from the ratepayers and voters of Hawke’s Bay. It must not be fast-tracked to avoid probing scrutiny.”

Others support ‘time out’

Also seeking a ‘time out’ are HB Fish & Game (requesting a three month pause) and the region’s iwi voice, Ngãti Kahungunu (requesting a six-month pause).

In addition, Transparent Hawke’s Bay (THB, of which I am a member), with the assistance of Wellington law firm Chen Palmer, has filed two actions.

First, THB has asked the Auditor-General to investigate what we regard as a failure on the part of the Regional Council to properly consult, as required by the Local Government Act, on its 2012-22 Long Term Plan. This LTP is the only ‘authority’ by which HBRC may commit funds to the dam project – $80 million is signaled; however, we argue this figure grossly understates the financial implications and ratepayer risks of the scheme.

Announcing the appeal to the Auditor-General, THB chair Pauline Elliott said: “Cost estimates for the dam itself increased by $60 million after public submissions closed, and no mention was made of even greater on-farm costs; the strongly indicated intention of the Regional Council to retain 51% equity in ownership is now fudged, and perhaps impossible to secure; other cost factors, such as stricter environmental mitigation measures, and dependencies have not been disclosed.”

Responding to the THB announcement, a supporter from Waipukurau emailed: “We all know that historically these sort of schemes tend to be used as political leveraging by the privileged few, and the public is only fed very minimal slanted information. And the ‘estimates’ that are used to sell the idea tend to massively balloon out of control as soon as the scheme is passed, and the ratepayer is forced to pay. And only when it’s too late, do some things tend to be disclosed.

“As a ratepayer, and one of those who will ultimately be expected to help pay, surely we are entitled to have ALL the facts before rushing into a decision. After all, can our elected representatives seriously argue that by prudently doing a thorough due diligence, the entire scheme will be disastrously compromised by a delay? What’s the rush?”

In addition, THB has submitted a brief to the Minister for the Environment arguing that a ‘call-in’ of this project absent genuine consultation would be premature and imprudent at best, and in fact is legally challengeable.

Both of these requests are now sitting with the officials involved, although by the time you are reading this, their decisions on how or whether to proceed should have been made. For its part, THB has indicated it will seek court review of the HBRC’s process if a voluntary ‘time out’ is not forthcoming.

What to expect?

If a ‘time out’ is called …

THB argues that a ‘time out’ should be used to enable independent review of key science and economic assumptions by experts with no stake in the outcome. With all facts on the table, full public consultation should follow, including a hearing process monitored by observers from EPA and the Ministry for Primary Industries (HBRC’s source of funding support for scheme development).

Only after this robust process can ratepayers in Hawke’s Bay make an informed decision about giving a mandate to this huge project.

If the call-in proceeds as HBRC hopes …

Environment Minister Amy Adams would agree in early June to accept the ‘call-in’ applications, consider the request within days and, assuming her approval, move quickly to appoint the Board of Inquiry.

From that point the Board of Inquiry would take over, conducting its own investigation of the environmental issues only (it has no responsibility to evaluate the scheme’s financial viability or risks), including public consultation in its review. The Board is required to make its decision within nine months from appointment.

The Regional Council has budgeted $9 million (including $3 million from MPI) to progress its water storage scheme in 2013-14, including shepherding the proposal through the Board of Inquiry process. Advocates of a ‘time out’ argue that those funds should not be committed until full public scrutiny has occurred. If the project does not survive closer scrutiny right here in Hawke’s Bay, ratepayers and taxpayers would be spared much of that $9 million expense.

If a Board of Inquiry process is launched, Hawke’s Bay Fish & Game has indicated that it will present a substantial science-based case challenging the key underpinnings of the Regional Council’s too weak water quality proposals.

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