Using science not emotion

The last three years has been a steep learning curve for the council

Last updated 05:00 25/05/2013
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Riparian planting is good but is it enough?

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The Taranaki Regional Council has been under the magnifying glass during the past three years.

And it is likely to be placed under even sharper scrutiny as local body elections loom in October.

Fracking and deepsea drilling were largely unheard of as the new council sat down around the chamber following the last elections in 2010.

Today they are household words and phrases thanks to an increased, and often emotional, focus of a worried public, the Greens, environmentalists and activists. One of whom has announced her own candidacy for the TRC.

Despite an expected explosion in oil and gas exploration in Taranaki and a public concerned at the potential impact, a number of incumbent councillors see their roles as business as usual.

However, it is likely to be anything but for an organisation seen as the traditional caretaker of the region's natural resources - the local body most responsible for regulating careful use of those precious assets.

The last three years has been a steep learning curve for the council.

Not only is Taranaki the scene of some of the world's most intensive dairy farming, but also because the region hosts practically all of New Zealand's oil and gas industry.

Both industries make heavy use of natural resources, and both have the capability of doing serious environmental damage. Dirty dairying has been a concern for some time.

But while it must maintain a steady focus on water and land quality, the council also has to keep another eye on its ownership of Port Taranaki, three prominent regional gardens and now Yarrow Stadium.

Despite these challenges, the incumbent councillors say it is business as usual, and confidence in the council's monitoring processes is unanimous.

The council claims it has the scientific facts to dispel the irrational fears, and that is what it plans to do.

New Plymouth representative Tom Cloke reckons there aren't any big issues, and the policies in place are sound.

"People are making a mountain out of a molehill around fracking, but there are really tight policies around that, there's nothing that's not covered," he says.

Peter Horton says people need to calm down and listen to the scientists. "We could test waterways as often as we like but the answers are not good enough for some people, it's difficult to know what to do next to calm the fear."

Come the local government elections in October, voters from the four constituencies will have to decide whether they are content with the comfortable incumbents, or are ready for a shake-up with a bright new crop set on changing the world.

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So who are the players? The current council is made up of a collection of savvy businesspeople.

There is chairman David Macleod, who sits on the boards of Fonterra and Port Taranaki, raising questions of whether this is a conflict of interest.

Mr Horton is the former chairman of the New Plymouth branch of the National Party and a board member of Port Taranaki.

Former New Plymouth mayor David Lean has had a long-time focus on cleaning up Taranaki's waterways, spearheading mammoth changes to New Plymouth's sewage disposal in the 1980s which set a national standard.

The freshwater plan is close to the heart of Craig Williamson, whose connections with surfing fuel his interest in clean coastlines and beaches.

Outside the council chamber is an increasingly educated environmental brigade turning over stones the council might prefer remained unturned.

These issues include the clarity of council monitoring reports around water quality and a perceived lack of protection for residents affected by the oil and gas industry.

Heading this environmental brigade and with sights set on a place in the council chamber is Sarah Roberts, Taranaki's answer to Erin Brockovich.

Ms Roberts is passionate about ensuring the safety of the oil and gas industry before it charges into the future unbridled.

"The oil extraction industry has the highest rate of death and we are living right beside them."

She is not opposed to fracking or oil and gas exploration, but wants to ensure government reports and recommendations are implemented.

"The single biggest issue in the next three years facing the council is the expansion of the oil and gas industry and its impact on existing primary industries such as dairy and tourism."

Mr Cloke believes her attitudes may change if she becomes part of the decision-making process.

"It's one thing to write letters to the newspaper but another to be a member of council and work through the system and make changes."

Mr Macleod gently says the challenge for anyone with a mindset of change is convincing fellow councillors.

"History shows someone entering council with an agenda will soon realise they are one voice among 11 around the table."

There is confidence among councillors in the monitoring of land users and environmental planning, despite reports from government agencies questioning both the clarity and quality of regional council monitoring into water and fracking issues.

A 2011 report from the auditor-general said the public needed to understand what freshwater quality results meant to them, where freshwater quality was not good, the factors contributing to this, and what the council and communities could do to improve it.

And the interim report into fracking by the parliamentary commissioner for the environment raised some concerns about the role of regional councils in monitoring the controversial practice and enforcing the rules.

For its part, the TRC says it leads the country with its riparian planting programme, with 500,000 plants due to be collected by farmers next week.

As at June 2012, 95 per cent of the region's dairy farms had a riparian planting plan.

There's still much to be done

because 26 per cent of the region's streambanks remain unfenced and 40 per cent of streambanks identified as suitable for planting are unplanted.

The council itself has admitted it's not going to reach its 2015 target of 90 per cent completion, with riparian fencing currently at 75 per cent completion and planting at 61 per cent.

Despite that success the TRC is one of the only North Island regional councils to routinely allow treated effluent to be discharged into waterways rather than on to land.

The council's latest State of the Environment report notes that of the 1413 discharges to water, 989 were dairy-shed discharges and 140 from hydrocarbon exploration.

This is set to change following the TRC's review of its 10-year-old fresh water plan, with an outcome - in line with worldwide best practice - that's likely to require dairy farmers to develop an effluent disposal system allowing the discharge of treated effluent to land or water.

But again, it's slow progress, with the rules not finalised until 2014.

Taranaki Chamber of Commerce chairman Grant McQuoid conceded the council had a challenging role in balancing economic growth with a growing focus on the environment. "Currently they appear to be doing very well. The issue going forward is ensuring environmental concerns are supported by facts not emotion."

Without oil and gas and without the rural economy, ours would be a fairly stagnant economy, Mr McQuoid says.

The council has had a good run, science tells us the streams are in pretty good nick, although in a region with Taranaki's rainfall we might get away with more than our drier counterparts.

There have been no major incidents in oil and gas under TRC's watch despite the fact they have been charting new ground and effectively running blind.

"Taranaki Regional Council has the most experience of anybody in New Zealand, if anybody got it right it's them," David Lean asserts of council's oil and gas monitoring.

So have they become too comfortable? Only time will tell.

- Taranaki Daily News

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