OPINION: Week seven of the Environmental Protection Authority hearing into NZ King Salmon's expansion plan for the Marlborough Sounds is coming to a close and, with just a week to go, the clock is ticking.
This is a test case for coastal areas under the EPA process and the legal teams, submitters, expert witnesses and sometimes even the board of inquiry have been grappling with the time pressure of the new fast-track approach.
NZ King Salmon has applied to the Environmental Protection Authority for nine more farms in the Marlborough Sounds, eight of them in areas where aquaculture is prohibited.
It is just over a year since legislation was passed to kick-start the aquaculture industry in the hope of increasing export earnings and creating jobs. The law change has streamlined the consents process and done away with aquaculture management areas that had restricted where marine farms could go.
Combined with the Environmental Protection Authority, which was set up by the Government as a fast-track planning process, the King Salmon application has a fair wind behind it.
But where does this leave the 800 or so community submitters, the Marlborough District Council and the Department of Conservation, who have opposed the application? Their budgets are nowhere near the $8 million that King Salmon is believed to have spent so far on their case and paying for the board of inquiry hearing.
The board, headed by Environment Court Judge Gordon Whiting, has sat in Blenheim, at Waikawa Marae and at Portage. Residents, bach owners, tourism operators, boaties, fishermen and iwi have come to the unfamiliar surroundings of the temporary courtroom to present their cases and, in some instances, try their hand at cross-examination. Few can afford to hire a lawyer and despite Judge Whiting's inclusive approach, the process can be bewildering.
There have also been questions from Wellington as cabinet ministers quizzed Marlborough Mayor Alistair Sowman on why the council has opposed King Salmon, and Nelson MP Nick Smith has been knocking on the mayor's door urging him to change the council's mind.
The application has raised the issue, which will be relevant for other councils around the country, of who is in charge of planning for the region. Aquaculture already has its own zone in the Marlborough Sounds but King Salmon wants to go into the prohibited area where cooler, faster-flowing water provides better growing conditions for the salmon and flushes away the fish faeces and uneaten food.
The board has heard how discharge from salmon farms smothers the seafloor and releases nitrogen, which has been compared to the runoff from intensive dairy farming. Little is known about where this nitrogen flows to and the impact on other bays and sealife.
The environmental effects need to be balanced with the economic gains of the proposal, which are difficult to quantify because a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis has not been presented to the hearing.
Over the weeks it has become clear that community submitters and the Marlborough District Council are not saying "no" to economic development. They are saying "yes" to a balanced approach as represented by their District Plan, which was consulted on and takes account of all Sounds users.
The pressure is on for the board of inquiry - the EPA process allows just nine months from public notification for submissions to the final decision due by the end of December.
The NZ King Salmon expansion plan in the Marlborough Sounds started out being about aquaculture. But it is increasingly becoming a question of democracy as the community struggles with a fast-track planning system, a highly resourced applicant and a Government on a mission.
What happens if the Government doesn't get the result it wants from this board of inquiry? Will it "do an ECan" - remove the Marlborough District Council and call in commissioners to ensure government policy is carried out to expand aquaculture, all in the name of economic growth?
A lot can happen in 12 months; with further reforms to the Resource Management Act and Local Government Act coming up, the legal framework is changing to ease the way for large projects such as the King Salmon application.
Bev Doole is a freelance journalist based in Marlborough. She specialises in environmental issues.
- The Marlborough Express