Environmental groups weigh legal action over 'flawed' Trans Tasman Resources hearing

This time, the new EPA-appointed committee opted to extend the process and request more information.

Environmental groups Kiwis Against Seabed Mining and Greenpeace may apply for a judicial review of Trans Tasman Resources' bid to mine iron sands from the ocean floor in New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone, arguing the process is flawed.

The hearing, which began in mid-February and has been extended to May 31, marks the second time TTR has sought permission to mine titano-magnetite iron sands on the seafloor off the coast of Whanganui. The company, which is 55 percent New Zealand owned, proposes extracting 50 million tonnes of seabed material a year in order to export up to five million tonnes of iron sand per year for as long as 35 years.

Its first application was rejected in 2014 when a committee appointed by the Environmental Protection Authority ruled the environmental impacts of the proposal were too difficult to gauge on the evidence available.

This time, the new committee opted to extend the process and request more information, provoking the ire of those opposed to the project who argue that it should have been rejected outright given the gaps in information.

The environmental lobby groups said the "flawed" hearing process had "gone off the rails" and that they were considering legal action.

"After accepting the original application as 'complete,' and after evidence from submitters, the caucusing of a wide range of experts, and recalling experts to give further evidence, the EPA has now turned around and asked the company for a whole lot of new information," KASM chair Phil McCabe said.

He said they told the EPA the information was missing in September "yet the the EPA went ahead and accepted this deficient application - and are now requesting detail they should have asked for seven months ago."

According to the groups "it is demonstrably clear ... that the (EPA) has embarked on an exercise of completing and, in effect, proving the applicant's case. This is an unlawful exercise of power which also significantly prejudices submitters in opposition to the application."

As a result, they are considering applying for a judicial review of the process, a declaratory statement, or an appeal based on the flawed process.

In response to the objections, the decision-making committee (DMC) said in a minute published on the EPA's website that its mandate "imposes an obligation on the DMC to seek information throughout the process and provides wide powers for the DMC to do so."

It argues the proceedings are complex and it is not unusual for "issues to gain a level of materiality needing to be further explored that was not envisaged at the time briefs of evidence are exchanged." The committee said it has been mindful of additional costs and has provided a "variety of options for parties to participate," including via Skype.

Still, the environmental groups argue the new information may make the application look very different and "to have a considerable amount of information put on the table at the end of the process means that opportunities for proper public engagement in the process have now been lost."

In a separate statement shortly after the extension was announced, Te Runanga o Ngati Ruanui Trust said it was "outraged" by the decision. The trust along with the several fisheries organisations, including Talley's Group and Fisheries Inshore New Zealand, opposed the extension because it unreasonably added cost, time and effort to an application that was already seen as inadequate.

In a memorandum for the DMC, they indicated the extension "will impose an unreasonable burden on them. They respectfully advise, after much consideration, that they are unable to be meet any additional cost, effort or time in these proceedings over and above those they have already committed to meeting."