Nitrogen ruling on dam fails 'sanity check'

Last updated 05:00 29/05/2014

A fly-by illustrated graphic of the proposed Ruataniwha dam project in Hawkes Bay.

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The lead backer of the Ruataniwha dam proposal has told a meeting that the government-appointed board of inquiry's decision on the scheme does "not pass the sanity check".

Andy Pearce, chairman of the Hawke's Bay Regional Investment Company, told regional councillors that the $275 million scheme could not go ahead under the board's draft decision, which restricts the amount of nitrogen that could leach into the Tukituki River catchment from surrounding farms and horticulture operations.

The decision set a limit of 0.8 milligrams of nitrogen per litre of water, which Pearce said "did not pass the sanity check".

However, ecologist Mike Joy said those comments, and others made recently by the likes of Irrigation NZ and Federated Farmers, must have left the board of inquiry members "feeling like [Justice Peter] Mahon did in the Erebus inquiry", with increasing pressure on them to change their minds.

"The rationale for the limit they arrived at was abundantly clear," he said. "The figure wasn't plucked out of the air.

"The guidelines used as the basis of river health protection by regional councils has been around 0.5mg/litre for years. I think the board saw 0.8 as a reasonable level."

The dam scheme, which would irrigate 25,000 hectares in Hawke's Bay, has become a symbol of the "economics v environment" argument, with some critics saying the board's decision has swung too far in favour of the environment.

Pearce said that the option of mounting a High Court challenge would be decided once the board's final decision was made on June 28. "We haven't turned our minds to that yet."

When councillor Rick Barker said he had heard from sources in Wellington that the Government was looking to legislate "over the top of the board's decision", Pearce said: "I have no knowledge of that and I'm certainly not willing to speculate on any such piece of nonsense."

He said the only test the board applied to see "if their decision bore any semblance to reality" was whether 0.8mg/litre was acceptable at just one part of the river.

But Joy, a senior lecturer at Massey University, said the board spent weeks listening to submitters and read thousands of pages of evidence.

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- The Dominion Post


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