The Rena Sellout

The Cabinet apparently plans to decide on Monday (28 July) whether or not to support efforts by the owners of the MV Rena, wrecked off the Tauranga coast in 2011, to leave the remains of the wreck, together with its 3,000-tonne debris “junk yard”, in the ocean.

20140726-083602-30962929.jpgIf previous deals and decision-making are any guide, it seems likely iwi and many local residents will be hung out to dry over the Rena, forced to go it alone against the shippers with a big stick and deep pockets. A condemnatory interim report from the Waitangi Tribunal issued on 21 July only adds to that impression, making painfully clear the government’s commitment was and remains protecting the shipping company, not the environment or people of Tauranga Moana.

The report, rushed into the public domain because of several looming deadlines around whether the remains of the wreck are removed or left on Otaiti (Astrolabe Reef), chronicles a depressing display of secret back-room deals, conflicts of interest and a familiar lack of good faith.

The Rena went down in October 2011 off the Tauranga coastline, not far from the island of Motiti. While much of the wreck has been removed, the bow section remains just one metre below the low tide mark on top of the reef surrounded by a large debris field – “up to 3,000 tonnes of material” described to the Tribunal as a “junk yard”. (I live at Mt. Maunganui and together with scores of local residents, took part in the clean-up, which cost taxpayers around $47 million. I wrote about the issue for the BOP Times and on my blog here and here. The interim Waitangi Tribunal report is downloadable as a pdf here. I reviewed an early book about the disaster at Scoop Review of Books.)

One of the main points of contention in the debate over the Rena has been the Wreck Removal Deed, signed by the government and the Rena’s owners in 2012. That deed comes with what appear to be in-built incentives for the government to support the owners in their effort to leave the wreck where it is, providing for an extra $10.4 million extra payment to the government if those efforts are successful and the owners make “a substantial cost saving”. (An Indemnity Deed signed at the same time protects the owners against “ ‘certain claims by New Zealand public and local government claimants’ to a maximum extent of $38 million”, while a Claims Deed settled the Crown’s claims against the owners for $27 .6 million.)

The Tribunal report touches on this in investigating two main issues – consultation with iwi and the resource consent process over the wreck’s future that is now under way. (The resource consent application was lodged on 30 May and the closing date for submissions is 8 August, and can be made at a Rena Consent website set up by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.)

On the consultation issue, the claimants representing Motiti iwi, argue that the government’s approach has been “ ‘hollow’, ‘tick-box’ and mere ‘window-dressing’”, something the report backs up and bears out. (The government disputes this.) While it knew the owners were going to apply for Resource Consent to leave part of the wreck on the reef by January of this year, the government made what the tribunal says was “minimal effort” at consultation.

The Tribunal takes a particular swipe at the Minister for Local Government, Paula Bennett, for doing nothing other than write one letter to iwi and hapū groups “to encourage them to participate in the consultation process”. They, in turn, received no help with travel to attend meetings, even though, as the report points out, Motiti is an isolated island community with no road network or public roads, no power or wired phone system, once weekly mail service and limited coastal access.

Of even greater concern, however, is just who Bennett put in charge of looking out for the interests of Motiti. Keith Frentz is a contractor employed by the Beca consultancy who, according to the Tribunal, “is also working on the Rena owners’ behalf to advance their resource application”.

As anyone who’s been involved at a community level in Resource Management Act challenges knows, this is a David v Goliath game in which David usually loses. The same is true in this case, with local iwi expected to use their own resources to take on a company with deep pockets to fund well-paid expert witnesses – a team of 14 individuals and consultancies so far. Certainly the Regional Council, as the consenting authority, has its own advisers, though it remains officially neutral – “has no preferred position” – on the fate of the wreck. (Contestable Environment Court funding of up to $40,000 isn’t available to objectors until after the resource consent application has been challenged.)

Much has been made in some news media commentary about risks and safety issues associated with further wreck removal, including in an editorial in The New Zealand Herald – which has little sympathy with iwi concerns about consultation. In the editorial just before this interim report was released, the paper argued that “total removal of the wreck from the reef no longer makes a great deal of sense” because the continued release of oil and debris is “a minor problem”.

In this, the Herald is – as the government appears to be doing – buying into the company’s arguments, giving short (or no) shrift to the interests of local iwi and pākehā. Of course worker health and safety is an issue, but we’re talking about professional salvors, and one can only imagine the effort that would made if one of those containers littering the ocean contained a few hundred million dollars worth of – well, anything.

Then there’s the argument, also repeated in the Herald’s editorial, that these deeds were a good deal “for all New Zealanders” because the government feared that without them, the ship’s owners and insurers would “walk away from the negotiating table”.

It is simply remarkable that the Crown’s failure to hold to account those responsible for New Zealand’s worst environmental maritime disaster could become a deal we should shut up and swallow.

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