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Mallard: Protecting the environment through RMA

Hon Trevor Mallard
Minister for the Environment

9 October 2008 Speech Notes

Embargoed until:9.15am

Protecting the environment through RMA tools and rules

Environment Minister Trevor Mallard's speech to the Environment Compliance Conference (Society of Local Government Managers), Brentwood Hotel, Wellington

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to give the opening address at this important and timely conference on environmental compliance.

Firstly, I commend the organising committee for putting this conference together with so many interesting and relevant workshops and speakers.

The conference provides a good chance to share best practice, debate issues and discuss solutions. It is also an opportunity to foster support for groups such as the
Compliance and Enforcement Special Interest Group and others who are actively working to make improvements across the sector.

The Resource Management Act (RMA) is the cornerstone of New Zealand’s environmental legislation. It allows us to balance the needs of our growing economy and population with the need to protect and enhance our natural resources and local environment.

Our government believes it is generally working well and does strike the right balance - especially since the 2005 reforms. Suggestions the RMA simply holds things up is simple untrustworthy scaremongering by a National party that is beholden to its special interests

They have made much of revamping the RMA, including John Key's plan to allow infrastructure projects to be fast tracked without any public consultation.

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Most communities would regard this as a backwards step. Other plans by National include creating a new bureaucracy to do the same RMA work that the Ministry for the Environment does. Apparently this is what they mean by smaller government.

And National has no plan for climate change. The unfortunate – and some might say scary thing is – that John Key and some of his frontbench MPs are actually leading climate change sceptics, so can not be trusted to do anything to honestly address this international problem.

The Labour-led government is acting, we have a plan for the future, we have an emissions trading scheme in place and we will not ignore the environment for the sake of special interests – which is why National want to turn the RMA on its head so the environment moves right down the pecking order.

For the RMA to be effective, compliance issues are becoming increasingly important as the sustainable limits of our natural resources are reached. This is particularly true where our water resources are concerned but it's equally relevant in the urban environment.

Compliance is also important when it comes to protecting our international "clean green" image.

This is an image that is not only an important part of our kiwi identity. It is also critical for our tourism industry and an increasingly important part of our international brand in world markets where consumers are increasingly demanding eco-friendly goods and services.

That is why compliance, monitoring and enforcement should be an integral part of the plan development and resource consent decisions, because if local rules and conditions imposed are not properly monitored and enforced then they will have little effect.

Congratulations to those councils for showing how it can be done – those councils who are active in environmental monitoring and taking prosecutions where local rules and consent conditions are breached.

Environment Southland has good examples of monitoring and enforcement work which are reported annually through a comprehensive environmental compliance monitoring report.

For dairy farmers, Environment Southland’s active role in compliance monitoring is supported by guidelines to better manage dairy effluent and a free advisory service to farmers.

This provides an excellent example of how a council can provide a mix of regulatory and non-regulatory measures to reduce water pollution in the region.

Many other councils are proactive and starting to take tougher stances. This includes Otago Regional Council, which in June 2008 prosecuted 18 dairy farmers or companies with total fines of more than $100,000.

Preliminary figures from new research show that overall prosecutions are increasing in terms of both frequency and fine levels. In the 1990s the average fine was $6500 and there were on average 39 prosecutions per year. Prosecutions are now much more frequent, averaging 82 per year.

Over the past three years average fine levels have risen to $12,500.
However, when placed in the context of inflation and the increased environmental impacts from intensified land-use, this increase in average fine levels is relatively modest.
In the last three years, the most common offence was discharge into water or onto land that may then enter the water (44 per cent) and the most common sector to offend was agriculture (43 per cent).

In addition to prosecutions, local authorities respond to more than 100,000 complaints about breaches of the RMA per year and issue approximately 1500 infringement notices annually.

This conference provides a great opportunity to discuss whether this is enough and if more can be done to better protect our local water and land resources by securing better compliance.

As I've said, looking after our environment and having sustainable water management is important for our economic success.

Consumers will not be interested in buying goods that have been produced at the expense of the local environment – be it through pollution in waterways, or through local water supplies running out because water resources have not been managed properly.

Most farmers do care about this – but the exporters who continue to pollute are actually undermining their own product and the valuable New Zealand brand.

As I have said previously, I think it's time the relatively small number of repeat offending polluters started facing the full personal penalties, including imprisonment, available under the law, rather than them getting away with treating small infringement fines as a normal business cost.

For instance, I am aware of a large corporate farming operation that is facing its fifth prosecution for ‘dirty dairying’.

This corporate was recently given the highest single fine for a dairy effluent RMA prosecution of $37,500 but that farm got an estimated annual dairy payout of $5 million.

This sort of recurring offending tends to suggest that existing penalties are not a sufficient deterrent to ensure large corporations with big profit margins comply with their consent conditions.

That said, I have also been heartened to hear Environment Court Judge Jeff Smith recently signalling greater fines and enforcement orders to shut down non-compliant farm operations. This may be what is required if we are to stop pollution and ensure all consent holders comply with their conditions.

The recent state of the environment report showed the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus have increased in our waterways. This is a result of intensified land-use and the increase of diffuse pollution entering our waterways from animal effluent, pesticides and fertiliser run-off.

For example, 30 per cent of the 900 dairy farms in the Manawatu-Wanganui region were non-compliant. And an audit of dairy farms within the Wellington region found that less than half were fully compliant.

This is unacceptable.

This issue of fines will no doubt arise during the conference and I am receptive to looking into this matter further.

However, these examples of 'dirty dairying' represent a small component of the farming community, most farmers care and a lot are doing good work to improve our waterways. Most dairy farmers now have nutrient budgets, a good first step. We need to see these budgets used, and moved to active nutrient plans, the top of the nutrient management ladder.
One thing I do want to stress is that cleaning up our water resources is a long term issue. It can not – in a practical sense - happen overnight as it can take many many years to clean a waterway from its source. What is important is that we have active plans in place for this to happen.
In addition to improvements around nutrients, many farmers have fenced off waterways, something I think should be standard practice. Environment Waikato is supporting this initiative in their region through subsidising farmers to fence off important waterways. This provides a great example of councils working with landowners to reduce water pollution.
I expect the farming industry to show leadership; to work proactively to do everything necessary to reign in farmers who let the industry down. The responsibility does not lie solely with the farming industry however.
Councils have a responsibility not just to communities to ensure individual farmers are not offending and polluting our waterways, but also to the farming industry, which as a whole both suffers by renegade farmers, and benefits when farmers are able to produce more efficiently and sustainably.
I would like to challenge local authorities to do everything they can, using the tools available under the RMA, to ensure that agriculture is sustainable and an important positive contributor to New Zealand. To assist this it is important that you share your knowledge too of best practice and your own experiences in what works.
Active environmental compliance of our urban environment is equally as important. Unconsented or non-complying activities such as tree removal, earthworks and damage of heritage sites can all have significant impacts on the amenity of our urban environment.

In addition to these issues, city and district councils respond to over 80,000 excessive noise complaints each year. Councils do a great job here, particularly those who have set up quick response units to monitor and enforce these issues.

The government is working at a national level to help address some of the problems I have raised.

Work to improve consistency in council plans and to create a better national direction for environmental management is ongoing. We also have better training for decision makers and more national guidance.

Central to this is the development and ongoing rollout of a suite of national environmental standards and national policy statements, including the proposed National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management. Many deal with water management including ecological flows and water takes and sources of drinking water, while others in place tackle air quality standards.

These will improve consistency under the RMA and help local government decide how to balance competing national benefits and local costs.

In addition to this national guidance, we are producing practical and hands-on resources to improve the implementation of the RMA.

There is the Quality Planning website (QP), which is the only dedicated RMA best practice guidance website in New Zealand. The website now consistently receives more than 25,000 visits per month.

Many of you will also be familiar with the enforcement manual on QP. This resource covers the full suite of RMA enforcement tools and provides useful guidance to practitioners on the most appropriate tools to use.

This manual is currently being updated to provide more practical guidance with more emphasis on tools, investigation and making best practice decisions.

The updated version will include practical templates and examples, and detailed information on key issues confronting the sector.

Earlier this year the "monitoring one-stop-shop" on QP was also updated. The updated guidance includes seven guidance notes on monitoring, including monitoring for compliance with resource consent conditions.

Environmental compliance and enforcement strategies need to evolve to keep up with emerging environmental issues. The RMA provides for compliance activities, but these provisions need to be used proactively and strategically by those in the sector.

There is a conference session today on the research commissioned by the Ministry for the Environment into the RMA enforcement regime. I encourage you all to use these sessions to share best practice and debate the future direction of environmental compliance in New Zealand, and I very much look forward to hearing back with your views.

Thank you.


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