Newly formed lobby group Transparent Hawke's Bay has hired a Wellington law firm to delay the proposed Ruataniwha dam until the project's financial and economic impact on the region's ratepayers is known.
Spokeswoman Pauline Elliot said the group had asked Chen Palmer, a law firm with experience in Resource Management Act issues, to help draft a case to put to Environment Minister Amy Adams.
Chen Palmer was Australasia's first public law specialist firm when it was co-founded by high-profile lawyer Mai Chen in 1994. Ms Chen is an adjunct professor at the University of Auckland business school and is considered an expert across many areas of law, including employment, constitutional law, New Zealand Bill of Rights, Official Information Act, privacy and human rights to name a few.
Hawke's Bay Regional Council's investment company, which is leading the dam project, is likely to ask Ms Adams to consider the initiative as one which must be heard by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in early May. The EPA will decide whether to grant a resource consent for the dam to progress to the next stage.
Transparent Hawke's Bay's legal challenge will seek to delay that process, on the basis there's been a lack of reliable information, consultation on the environmental issues and financial arrangements of the project.
In particular, the group said the reports available were technical, difficult for lay people to understand and did not clearly show the potential impact on ratepayers.
"Much has been claimed by the regional council about the environmental and economic benefits of this $600m scheme, but at no time has sufficiently complete information been available to allow appropriate consultation, or to build confidence that this massive investment will deliver on stated aims.
"The whole project is based on commodity prices that are highly sensitive, water charges which have not been set and it's based on an assumption that there will be uptake [from farmers] within eight years. All of those things are not assured.
"While we understand there might be difficulty at this stage to give those assurances, it is really important for ratepayers and the wider community to understand how this will impact on our future."
Pausing the dam's consent application would allow an independent peer review of economic and environmental modelling around the project, before it was lodged with the EPA.
"The EPA process under a Board of Inquiry is time-bound, and does not examine financial and economic issues. Only when there is independent evidence supporting the integrity of assumptions made, and a vote of confidence from the people of Hawke's Bay, should the matter be taken up by the EPA."
Transparent Hawke's Bay was formed about a month ago from a group of people worried about the speed of the dam project and the lack of information supporting the initiative.
"We want to make one thing clear - we are not against the dam. But we are against the process that has got us to this point."
Mrs Elliot said the dam, proposed for Central Hawke's Bay, would be the "biggest investment" undertaken in Hawke's Bay.
It would represent the highest debt level of any regional council and the biggest water storage project in New Zealand.