Elation as Ashburton council backs out of controversial water bottling deal

A premises in the Ashburton Business Estate.

A premises in the Ashburton Business Estate.

The ditching of a deal to set up a water bottling plant in Canterbury has been hailed "a win for the Ashburton community".

The Ashburton District Council has backed out of negotiations with NZ Pure Blue to sell Lot 9 of its business estate, which came with resource consent to extract billions of litres of water from aquifers beneath the town.

The council had been under public pressure to drop the sale. A petition with 40,000 signatures opposing the deal was recently presented to the council.

The Bung the Bore group opposing the sale had threatened legal action, and was pursuing a judicial review of the resource consent. 

It is understood the decision to back out of negotiations was made at a public-excluded council meeting last week. Councillors had been sworn to secrecy until the council released the news on Monday. 

Mayor Angus McKay said the potential purchaser failed to tell the council "how they intended to run a water bottling plant from the site".

"In particular, we wanted confirmation that the plant would be using bottles not water bladders ... [this] has given us enough cause for concern to cancel the Sale and Purchase Agreement," he said. 

Jen Branje of Bung the Bore said the group was "elated" at the news.

"This decision is a testament to what can be achieved when communities band together to instigate change.

"We hope that the outcome of our efforts will encourage others to hold their councils to account." 

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Green Party water spokesperson Catherine Delahunty called the decision "a win for the Ashburton community".

"Everything about this backroom deal was flawed – from the lack of consultation to the secrecy around who was to buy the land," she said. 

"We're glad that the council has finally seen the light and have backed down from this ridiculous deal. If they have to sell public land, which is always debatable, it could at least be for something that is endorsed by and benefits the whole community, not just those who stand to make a quick buck."

"Those who profit from the use of water, like those who bottle and sell it as a premium product, should pay for the privilege."

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NZ Pure Blue behind Ashburton water sale deal

* 40,000 urge council to drop Ashburton water deal

The consent, granted by Environment Canterbury (ECan) in 2011, allowed extraction of 1.4 billion litres of pure, artesian water a year until 2046.

It amounted to 40 billion litres of water in total. All water taken would have been replaced with water from a nearby stockwater race.

Some residents of drought-prone Mid Canterbury — who at times can't hose their gardens due to water restrictions — said the water was desperately needed locally.

NZ Pure Blue had offered to pay for the relocation of Ashburton's rail siding from the township to a site next to its proposed water bottling plant.

The sale was extended to September 30 so it could negotiate with KiwiRail.

NZ Pure Blue has two New Zealand directors, John Paynter and Roydon Hartnett, but its ownership is concealed through a trust.

Both men refused to speak to Stuff but told a local newspaper the water bottling plant could create around 100 jobs.

The council has also been criticised for a lack of transparency. Some councillors were kept in the dark about details of the sale, which McKay led.

A previous attempt to sell the site to a Chinese buyer fell through.

McKay said the council was still considering the feedback from Ngāi Tahu and Arowhenua Rūnanga, the online petition and the community deputation from two lobby groups presented to council last month. 

A report on community feedback to the proposed sale would be presented at the council's July meeting.

​Branje said the group was thankful for the support from people around New Zealand.


 - Stuff

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