OPINION: The unanswered questions of the Mokihinui

Many questions are left hanging after Meridian recently pulled out of plans to dam the Mokihinui River on the West Coast.  

Irrespective of the reasons for Meridian’s withdrawal of the Mokihinui hydro-electric power scheme and the issues it raises around access to conservation land, it leaves a number of other fascinating and critical questions unanswered.

Depending on who you speak to, it is either deliverance from environmental catastrophe or yet another blow to West Coasters’ economic growth aspirations.

But is it genuinely a case of having to choose between a good environmental outcome and a good economic outcome, or is it possible to have the two work together?

This was the question the Environment Court was poised to tackle. The Resource Management Act provided it with both the legislation and the process specifically designed to tease this out.

Particularly interesting was the fact that the proposal before the court was not all environmental doom and gloom or pushing economic gains at all costs.

Without a doubt, there were some difficult environmental issues in the form of the loss of 14km of wild and special river gorge, including some high ecological, landscape and recreational values.

Other issues like the visual effect of the 80m high dam, the power lines needed to connect to the grid and the construction effects like traffic, noise and bush removal cannot be brushed aside either.

But this project was not without its environmental benefits.

There was the critical issue of being able to provide renewable energy to the West Coast at affordable prices and to supplement the national grid.

Meridian had also gone to great lengths to provide additional environmental benefits.

It committed to indefinite pest control, removing from the 35,000ha upstream of the dam the goats, deer, possums and other pests that pose such a major threat to the special and rare animals and plants of the area.

It had pledged to protect a large area of valuable lowland forest as well.

The ecologically enhanced upper catchment would have been opened up beyond only those who could afford helicopter access by providing boat access to the newly created lake, as well as foot and mountain bike access via an upgrade to the now largely inaccessible historical pack track.

What cannot be ignored, either, are the substantial economic opportunities provided in terms of jobs during the construction phase and the flow-on benefits of cheaper electricity available on the West Coast.

The intriguing question was if the court would accept whether this would have been enough to make up for some significant environmental loss.

Would it have found that this met the twin aims of the Resource Management Act, of enabling people to provide for their wellbeing through development, and still making sure that key environmental values are maintained?

How would it have weighed the various benefits against the undeniable drawbacks?

How important is providing for locally generated renewable energy to environmental outcomes?

Is it important enough to require some sacrifices to be made to achieve it?

How much can you compensate for the loss of one set of special values by improving others?

Must conservation always trump economic development, or can the two assist each other?

Sadly, we have lost an opportunity to have these questions looked at by some of the most qualified and skilled people in the environmental field.

For now we are left wondering whether the RMA and its processes could have delivered that for which it was designed.

Hans van der Wal, an environmental law specialist with Duncan Cotterill, has acted for West Coast councils in relation to a number of power projects involving the damming or diversion of significant rivers. He also acts for two of the parties who were involved in the proceedings.

CORRECTION: In the original article supplied by Mr van der Wal the pest control area was given as 35ha, when it should have been 35,000ha. This is now corrected in the article. Ed.

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