Community takes fight against water bottling plant to High Court

9:14 pm on 27 December 2019

A defeat at the Environment Court has not broken Otakiri residents, who are now taking their fight against the expansion of a local water bottling plant to the High Court.

Otakiri Springs

Otakiri Springs. Photo: LDR / Charlotte Jones

Residents' group Sustainable Otakiri has been battling alongside Te Runanga o Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Tuwharetoa (BOP) Settlements Trust to prevent the expansion of Otakiri Springs by Creswell NZ, a subsidiary of Chinese company Nongfu Spring.

Their appeals against Bay of Plenty Regional Council and Whakatāne District Council granting consent for the expansion were dismissed earlier this month in a split decision by the Environment Court.

Sustainable Otakiri chairwoman Maureen Fraser said the group was heartened by the comments made by Environment Commissioner David Kernohan, who was the dissenting voice in the court's decision.

Kernohan said he was concerned about the creation of 1.35 billion new plastic bottles each year and also believed the consent for the expansion should have been publicly notified.

Fraser said Sustainable Otakiri "wholeheartedly believe" the consents should have been publicly notified because of the great public interest in water bottling.

She said the group was now in talks with Tauranga City Council which should also have been notified.

"They were completely unaware of what was going on before our court case ... we understand that they are concerned about how they can effectively plan for the rates increases necessary for the infrastructure heading to the port without having a seat at the table for these kind of discussions," said Mrs Fraser.

"That's when the non-notification of such vast increases of businesses just doesn't work. The Resource Management Act just wasn't intended to allow such large consent creeps. Especially when multiple councils are affected."

Fraser said the group was launching fundraising activities such as a Pledge Me page and an event to be held in Tauranga on 12 January to raise the money needed to take their battle to the High Court.

The group needs to raise at least $35,000 by 20 January to launch their case.

"We have a really strong case to head to the High Court, but we do need the public's help," she said.

"The way in which the courts work means we have very little time to raise the large sum of money needed to launch this case."

Sustainable Otakiri has been denied Environmental Legal Assistance funding for their court case twice. Once for having too wide a scope and once for having too narrow a scope.

"We're up against a billion-dollar company, it's a David and Goliath fight," Fraser said.

"It's really, really difficult for an everyday New Zealander to navigate this kind of system when the government is relying on us, as citizens, to uphold the RMA. If you look at it, they spend $30 million a year enticing overseas companies to come here, but only spend less than a million supporting everyday kiwis who are fighting gross consents like this in court. It's diabolical really.

"I've never seen a consent increase of this size, without public notification, ever. But we're going to keep fighting."

Between jobs and the environment

The expansion of the Ōtākiri water bottling plant has highlighted the battle between economic growth and environmental concerns.

Trustee-secretary of the Kokohinau Papakainga Trust Rihi Vercoe said the trust was happy with the Environment Court's decision.

"Our first priority is the creation of employment opportunities, particularly for our younger generations," Vercoe said.

"Most of the 20 current employees are from Te Teko and Kawerau. The expansion project will create up to 60 jobs, which will also provide for upskilling opportunities."

She said she had been to the bottling plant to pick up water for over 200 schoolchildren and their carers visiting Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi and had asked for it to be in glass bottles which the company did "very willingly".

While there, Vercoe spoke to some of the bottling plant's staff members who told her they were "fearful for their jobs" while the court cases against the plant went on.

"They will now have peace of mind knowing that the Environment Court interim judgement is taking a favourable step forward."

In respect to plastic waste, Vercoe said she would invite opponents of the bottling plant to observe sales of sugary drinks at supermarkets, particularly Coke, which were all sold in plastic bottles.

Creswell responds

Creswell NZ said in a statement that the Environment Court decision was the right one and would deliver much-needed benefits to the community, particularly new jobs for locals.

"We're actually at the forefront of global research and development of solutions to distributing water without plastic," said the company's managing director Michael Gleissner.

Gleissner said the company had been advocating for a comprehensive recycling scheme in New Zealand for several years and reducing waste remained a key focus for the company.

"We use recycled PET in New Zealand and advances in technology means the average weight of resins in our bottles has reduced by nearly 50 percent since 2000," he said.

"We do use glass in other markets but it's important to note that glass bottles carry a much heavier carbon footprint than the recycled plastic we use in New Zealand.

"We're presently working on a fully biodegradable bottle for market and we're excited about other opportunities and new ways of distributing water."

Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa is yet to comment on the court decision as it is currently focused solely on the Whakaari/White Island tragedy.

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