8 Oct 2015

Questions asked over dairy pollution documents

10:12 am on 8 October 2015

A dairy lobby group appears to have pressured the Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Council into removing potentially embarrassing information about dairy farm pollution from public documents.

Organic Jersey cow on a Rongotea farm.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The council has been giving farmers discretionary consents that allow more nitrate leaching than set out in its so-called One Plan to clean up rivers.

In a July 2014 email obtained by Radio New Zealand, Dairy NZ project manager Geoff Taylor said the council agreed to remove certain data tables from the discretionary consents after feedback from farmers.

The tables showed gaps between the actual nitrogen leaching targets set for some farmers and those in the One Plan.

"This was seen to be a risk if the gap between what the farm was actually targeting and the target set in the table was too wide," Mr Taylor said in the email.

"Under an Official Information Act request this was seen to be easily discoverable with the potential to cause significant harm to the industry."

Mr Taylor now says he was not worried about bad publicity but concerned about the data being taking out of context.

"Because those targets were absolutely unachievable, there is no need to be reflecting on them on a continual basis," he said.

"We've taken a very forward-focused approach with farmers and got them to think about what they can do, what sort of mitigations they can achieve on their farms in order to reduce runoff, which is far more productive, I guess, than reflecting on a table they could never meet."

A stream near Shannon in Manawatu, which flows into the Manawatu River.

The nitrogen limits in the One Plan are designed to prevent pollution in streams and rivers, like this one near Shannon near Manawatu. Photo: 123RF

The discretionary consents last for up to 20 years and critics say they give farmers who get them an unfair advantage.

They include nitrogen management plans and nitrogen leaching targets well below those called for in the One Plan.

It had been estimated that 80 percent of farmers would meet controlled consents standards as per the One Plan but new modelling means only 20 percent will now make the cut, which means the rest are likely to be issued discretionary consents.

Manawatu Whanganui regional council chief executive Michael McCartney said he was unaware of Mr Taylor's email discussing the removal of the One Plan targets from discretionary consents documentation.

But he said that they did not need to be there anyway.

"Those tables are used to guide the decision-making process so they are the targets set up in the plan. They are still there to inform that consenting process. They are not necessarily required to go into the consent, they exist in the plan and the plan is the key document here."

Mr McCartney was happy that the council was meeting all its legal requirements and said that the bottom line was that water quality was improving.

"The dairy industry and the farming industry is important to our economy and it's important its done in a way that's sympathetic to the environment and those efforts are being made.

"The Resource Management Act is about looking at that balance and that's what we're endeavouring to do here.

"That's what the plan anticipates and at the end of the day we are seeing a material improvement in our waterways."

Call to review consenting process

Fish and Game won battles in the High Court and Environment Court to keep nitrogen leaching targets in the One Plan.

Chief executive Bryce Johnson said he had been watching recent developments with concern.

"What I'm seeing here is that the regional council is really putting the economy before the environment and the law, so the regional council seems to be shirking its statutory responsibilities and ignoring a decision that has been secured as high as the High Court."

Mr Johnson was not happy about the dairy lobby's apparent influence on the regional council.

"I'm pretty disgusted. The [Resource Management] Act was set up very clearly to achieve environmental protection and this is a classic case of farmer politics dominating the council's position and causing it to change its view."

Mr Johnson said Fish and Game wanted the regional council's consenting process independently reviewed by the Auditor-General, a parliamentary commissioner or by a judge.