Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Brian Rudman: Memo to Sir Barry - keep your mitts off Puketutu Island

Manukau City's hearings committee has voted to go to the Environment Court to continue the fight against plans to compost Auckland's green waste on Puketutu Island.

It has also voted to initiate "discussions between affected parties with a view to reaching an agreed solution" which could involve processing Auckland's green waste on Puketutu Island!

Confused? Me too.

Either they're against the despoilation of the unique island off Mangere or they're not. To pass a resolution backing both sides of the debate, as they did on November 1, is, at the very least, odd.

Committee chair Jan Sinclair says it was "to leave things open."

It's been that sort of battle from the start. You'll recall how Living Earth, the region's main processor of garden waste, did a deal with the Puketutu's owners, the Sir Henry Kelliher Charitable Trust, to relocate to the island.

Living Earth was so confident of success that it sold its Pikes Pt site and agreed to leave by April 2007.

However, opposition from the proposed plant's neighbours in Mangere was widespread.

Locals had just seen the Mangere sewage treatment plant transformed and did not want to risk a re-emergence of the smells and insect invasions that had for so long blighted their lives. Neither did they want 50,000 tonnes of green waste trucked past their doors each year.

Watercare Services, which runs the sewage plant, opposed the composters too, fearing it would cop the blame for any problems from the new establishment. Watercare also had its own plans for the island.

On September 16, a joint panel of commissioners representing both Manukau City Council and the Auckland Regional Council refused consent for the compost plant.

They said it was "not appropriate" in relation to the island's "unique landscape" and "regionally significant and cultural heritage values" and would introduce an urban activity to an area zoned rural.

Two commissioners, chairwoman Dianne Glenn and Christine Rose, both ARC councillors, added a supplementary note calling on the region's politicians to discuss "appropriate location(s) of green waste facilities".

On September 27, Living Earth filed an appeal in the Environment Court. Less than a week later, Manukau councillors passed the confusing resolution I started off with. The recommendation from council staff had been that the committee instruct the city solicitor to defend the decision of the commissioners.

At the meeting, a new element was added, reading: "That in the view of the strategic importance of Living Earth's operations to waste minimisation objectives in the Auckland region, and issues around the future of Puketutu Island, council actively facilitate discussions between affected parties with a view to reaching an agreed solution including consideration of alternative sites."

Mayor Sir Barry Curtis tells me this is the key clause in the resolution and "it doesn't rule out consideration being given to Puketutu Island".

He says he's going to get all the "stakeholders", the Auckland Regional Council and Living Earth included, around his table and negotiate a settlement. He says he had hosted Living Earth chief Rob Fenwick in his office "a few days ago" but had not yet spoken to the regional council.

Perhaps he should have. The ARC has also resolved to defend the commissioners' decision against composting on Puketutu in the Environment Court.

It's also moving on a regional solution to the composting problem, and says it's the ARC's business, not Sir Barry's.

Two weeks ago, staff were instructed to initiate an investigation into identifying sites in the region suitable for green waste composting.

At yesterday's meeting of the regional strategy planning committee, ARC Mike Lee formally moved this be done.

Responding to Sir Barry's proposals, he said, "It's a regional issue, not a Manukau City issue", and "there's no way he is going to be running this investigation. We're certainly happy to talk to him but we'll be running the process".

That makes sense to me, particularly if it takes Puketutu off the list as a potential composting site.

The battle to clean up that section of the Manukau Harbour has been too long fought to take this backward step. A compost plant doesn't need sea views. It's up to the ARC to find somewhere more suitable. And fast.

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