A High Court decision has cleared the way for the Port of Tauranga to dredge its shipping channel, making the harbour accessible to the biggest container ships ever to visit a New Zealand port.
The giant ships can carry twice as many containers as vessels currently using the port, allowing importers and exporters to transport their goods at cheaper rates.
In a decision released yesterday, Justice John Priestley dismissed the appeal of the Ngati Ruahine hapu, saying he was satisfied with the decision reached by the Environment Court last year and he could not see any "errors of law".
Ngati Ruahine had appealed against the Environment Court's decision, claiming the court had not properly considered how the consent conditions would provide for the relationship between the hapu, the harbour and Mauao.
The dredging will cause some disturbance to pipi beds and kaimoana fishing grounds, however Justice Priestley said the Environment Court had carefully and correctly weighed the adverse cultural effects and balanced them against the national and regional significance of the Port of Tauranga.
A moratorium on interfering with Tanea Shelf (the sub-marine extension of Mauao) and conditions giving iwi more input in harbour policy were the product of the court's balancing exercise, Justice Priestly said.
Ngati Ruahine Incorporated Society chairman Lance Waaka yesterday told the Bay of Plenty Times he had not received the decision and had no comment to make.
The Bay of Plenty Regional Council's consents manager Helen Creagh said the decision was a "reassurance" for the council.
"The outcome today is consistent with the decision the council made originally."
Port of Tauranga property manager Tony Reynish said the port was pleased with the decision which "considered in a balanced way both the economic benefits and cultural impacts of the dredging proposal".
"It is a very important decision for New Zealand's exporters and importers who stand to benefit significantly from the gradual introduction of bigger ships which are more cost and fuel efficient," he said.
"The significance of it for Tauranga is it keeps the Tauranga port at the forefront of New Zealand ports."
The dredging will be carried out in two stages, with the first stage unlikely to start for at least another year, Mr Reynish said.
In the meantime, the port will be developing a kaimoana restoration plan with the close assistance of the Tauranga Moana Iwi Customary Fisheries Trust.
Before dredging can begin, modelling work needs to be completed to determine just how much sand will need to be removed from the channel to allow the bigger ships through.
"We expect this work will take at least a year and during that period we will be talking with our customers to determine commercially the appropriate time to commence the first stage."
While the biggest container ships currently using the port can carry 4000 TEUs (20-foot equivalent containers), the first stage of dredging will give access to ships with a capacity of 5000-6000 TEUs.
The first stage will cost between $30 million and $40 million and was likely to take six months to a year to complete, depending on the size of the dredger, Mr Reynish said.
The second stage would increase the depth of the channel (3.3 metres deeper than the current depth) and remove 32 metres of Tanea Shelf to make the channel wider for the larger 8000 TEU ships.
The Maersk S class ships were indicative of the type of giant container ships that would eventually dock at the port, Mr Reynish said.
"We believe they're the largest ships we're likely to see in New Zealand for the next 10 to 15 years."
The consent requires the port to financially compensate the Mauao Trust when the dredging of Tanea Shelf begins.
Mr Reynish said the consent requires the establishment of a new trust that will set priorities and allocate funds for projects in Tauranga Harbour, as well as providing a forum for the enhancement of the relationship between the port and iwi.
The trust will comprise four iwi and two Port of Tauranga representatives.