Environment Minister Nick Smith's decision to "call-in" controversial consents sought for large-scale factory dairy farms in the South Island's Mackenzie Basin has won praise from environmentalists and the regional council, Environment Canterbury.
Southdown Holdings Ltd, Williamson Holdings Ltd and Five Rivers Ltd want to set up 16 dairy farms, which would involve thousands of cows being housed in huge sheds permanently during winter and temporarily during summer.
Effluent from the intensive farms, which could hold at capacity nearly 18,000 cows, would be equivalent to a city of 250,000 people, Dr Smith said in announcing his decision yesterday.
Environment Canterbury chief executive Bryan Jenkins said the call-in of the three large dairy effluent discharge consents in the Upper Waitaki recognised their national significance in relation to water quality, the sensitivity of the Mackenzie lakes, and public concern.
It would allow the applications to be dealt with at a national level by a board of inquiry and remove the local authority role in deciding the consents.
Environment campaigners and the Greens, who have opposed such developments because of animal welfare issues and the fact they would involve visual degradation and huge effluent discharges in what was considered a pristine environment, praised Dr Smith's actions.
Green Party environment and water quality spokesman Russell Norman said the decision was a win for environmentalists the length of the country.
"It's a great victory for all the people who have been campaigning on it," he told NZPA.
Dr Norman said locals were appalled when a land use consent relating to the proposal was processed through Waitaki District Council without public notification. Environment Canterbury had been handling the other consents.
Environmental Defence Society chairman Gary Taylor said he had seen some massive land use changes taking place in the Mackenzie country, and the scale and intensity of the applications in question was a step too far.
He echoed calls by Dr Norman and the Green Party that the companies abandon their proposals and re-think the whole issue.
Mr Taylor said there needed to be a proper strategy for the Mackenzie Basin that could charter a long term future compatible with protecting the environment.
Dr Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, said Dr Smith was correct to identify that there were significant concerns regarding the effect of the proposals on water quality.
"These proposals have national implications ranging from the special unique ecology of the Mackenzie, to tourism and carbon-free power generation," Dr Wright said.
The commissioner recently wrote to the minister about her concerns.
"I'm glad that these issues are being taken seriously at a national level," she said.
Federated Farmers has also welcomed the call-in decision.
"This call-in to a board of inquiry is a litmus test for economic development," said Lachlan McKenzie, Federated Farmers Dairy chairman.
He questioned whether the Mackenzie basin was a virgin dairy farming area as some claimed, and said the board of inquiry must operate under the effects-based Resource Management Act.
"It's about guiding the location of activities while controlling that, which may have unacceptable environmental impacts," he said.
"If the board operates on the facts and the evidence then we will be happy, yet there has been a worrisome level of political conjecture at the most senior level. Really, our political leaders ought to know better and ought to be treating this process as quasi-judicial."
The board of inquiry will be chaired by Environment Court Judge Jane Borthwick and includes Michael Bowden (water engineer), Dr Jim Cooke (scientist), Edward Ellison (Ngai Tahu) and Professor David Hamilton (lake ecologist, Waikato University).
It will oversee a nationwide submission process after the proposal is re-advertised.