Millions spent on wind farm fight

Electricity giant Meridian Energy has spent more than $7.9 million trying to secure permission to build its 176-turbine Project Hayes wind farm in Central Otago, including more than $1.8 million fighting objectors.

Figures released to The Southland Times under the Official Information Act this week - six months after first requested - show the State-owned power company has so far spent $7,924,287.62.

Disclosure that more than $1.8 million has been spent battling Environment Court appeals drew criticism of the resource management system from Central Otago residents forced to delve into their pockets to make their case.

Save Central president Grahame Sydney said the organisation was fighting its corner on the cheap.

"They have spent more than $1.1 million on expert witnesses. They can go to as many people as they feel necessary to shore up their case.

"For us, we don't know how much money we can raise so we therefore have to approach expert witnesses and lawyers with the understanding we are merely hoping to pay them."

Money aside, Mr Sydney said appellants had devoted thousands of hours of their time opposing Project Hayes, neglecting their livelihoods.

"The likes of Meridian can just put a whole number of people on to the case as their fulltime job.

"It is a terribly weighted situation and weighted very much in favour of the larger organisation."

Auckland lawyer Mike Holm had offered his services on a pro bono basis and had put four to five months' work into the case, Mr Sydney said.

Mr Holm said the group might have struggled to find experienced counsel without his support.

"I think it was a project where the opposing argument needed to be articulated in a credible way because it was a (significant) project ... in an outstanding landscape."

Meridian Energy figures show it has spent $651,648 on legal costs and $1,138,309 on expert evidence during the appeal stage.

Save Central had racked up about $139,000 in legal fees and $164,000 in expert costs. About $100,000 in bills were yet to be paid.

Save Central co-ordinator Graye Shattky said the group had received about $127,000 in private donations and $78,500 from the Environment Ministry environmental legal assistance fund.

Another appellant, Roch Sullivan, said wind farm proposals only "got traction" because of the funds held by power companies.

The Upland Landscape Protection Society, which also appealed Project Hayes, was put into liquidation in June following the unsuccessful judicial review of two wind farms, one proposed by Meridian Energy and one by Trustpower.

Meridian Energy spokeswoman Claire Shaw said the money spent by the company on Project Hayes was a "pertinent investment".

Asked what further action Meridian Energy would take if the Environment Court upheld the appeal, Ms Shaw said she was not able to speculate.

A court decision is expected next month.

The Southland Times