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Critics want a dental check on proposed EPA

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
David Clendon
David Clendon

Wellington, June 4 NZPA - The Government's new environmental protection agency (EPA) -- which will take over the nation's genetic-engineering regulator and be expected to protect our oceans from seabed mining catastrophes -- may turn out to be a toothless tiger, critics say.

"It is difficult to see how an expanded EPA will be truly independent or offer something new when it is simply merging existing functions of various government departments, and has no significant budget," said Green Party resource management spokesman David Clendon.

"John Key's Government's track record on environmental protection has been abysmal," he said. It had sacked the Canterbury regional council to give farmers easier access to rivers and aquifers despite the water crisis in the region, and this did not inspire confidence in environmental protection through institutional reform.

Environment Minister Nick Smith was keen on "improved approval times for major infrastructure projects", which suggested the EPA would be rubber-stamping projects, regardless of their environmental consequences, said Mr Clendon.

The EPA will take over the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) which has regulated GE organisms, and environmental hazards from chemicals, as well as provide protection for the environment in an expected boom in seabed mining.

In 2008 the United Nations confirmed New Zealand's rights over continental shelf seabed outside the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) -- the 1.7 million sq km area is six times the size of New Zealand's land area.

Companies are already looking at mining ironsands off the nation's west coast, gold, copper and zinc on the Kermadec Arc, phosphate on the Chatham Rise, gold off Westland, in addition to oil and gas all around the country.

Scientists are also looking at how methane hydrates -- extensive deposits of frozen methane in the sea floor -- could be mined.

There has been little said about how such miners will be required to protect the environment, but Dr Smith said yesterday one function of the EPA would be to provide "world-best" protection.

"The Government is determined to ensure that New Zealand's marine environment is properly protected as we expand the petroleum exploration and development in the EEZ," Dr Smith said.

An independent report, on health, safety and environmental provisions around minerals activities such as deep sea drilling, should be ready next month.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, has welcomed the announcement that the EPA will be a stand-alone authority, and Sustainability Council executive director Simon Terry said it would have greater opportunity to be independent.

"The Ministry for the Environment never had the necessary teeth and has become an ineffectual advocate," he said. But much depended on the detail of the EPA legislation, and the retention of core protections in the HSNO Act underpinning Erma.

Environmental Defence Society chairman Gary Taylor said his lobby wanted the Resource Management Act, which governs the marine environment out to the 12 nautical mile limit, extended to the 200 nautical mile limit, overseen by the EPA.

Environmental and Conservation Organisations (ECO) co-chairman Barry Weeber said the EPA faced conflict between the Government's desire to fast-track projects and the need to implement national standards, policies and rules.

"Such serious conflicts of interest will hamstring its effectiveness," he said.

Mr Weeber said ECO hoped the Government would introduce legislations, new oceans law and ratify important international maritime agreements.

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