An official Government event to announce the sealing of a "horrendous" gravel section of state highway on the road to Lake Waikaremoana has been cancelled at the last minute because of iwi opposition.
The Provincial Growth Fund's decision has left the district's mayor and long-campaigning residents on the road aghast.
Parts of State Highway 38, from Wairoa to Onepoto - a settlement on the shores of Lake Waikaremoana - have already been fixed, but patches making up about 10km are yet to be sealed.
That's comparable with 12km of unsealed road on the famous Forgotten Highway from Stratford to Taumarunui, NZ's only stretch of gravel state highway longer than 10km.
Wairoa mayor Craig Little said his council had been hopeful the sealing of the road would finally get the go-ahead from the NZ Transport Agency and central Government, at a cost of upwards of $10 million.
"This is the closest we've probably ever gotten to getting it sealed and in the final hours it has been pulled. I know the community is devastated," Little said.
"It is a horrendous road to travel on. In the summer you can't see probably four or five metres in front of you. It's bad enough buying a car, then watching your car fall apart around you as you drive on these roads.
"There are a couple of bad bits that the dust ends up on roofs of the Piripaua village as well as Onepoto village and these people drink the water so it's not a healthy situation as well."
An email was sent by Shane Jones' office on Wednesday informing them of the decision. The announcement was due to be made on Monday at the Gaiety Theatre, with delegates and schoolchildren packing in.
"It was going to be a wonderful occasion," Little said.
Little said 34 children from local kura, Te Kura O Waikaremoana, were to sing a waiata at the announcement.
"Those kids have written us letters pleading for tar-seal for their bus trips and all their trips to town."
He said Jones had visited the area on a "couple of occasions" and understands that road and the "suffering it's causing".
Little said he had been in correspondence with local iwi Ngai Tuhoe on numerous occasions, Little said.
It was only in January when it came to their attention that Tūhoe "weren't keen on tar-seal", he said.
"But I still don't know the reason why."
Tūhoe Te Uru Taumatua chairman Tāmati Kruger said his iwi opposed the sealing of the road because it "contributes to damage to the environment".
He did not believe Tūhoe had been properly consulted about the works, given they had an "interest" in the area.
"The road brings rubbish to Waikaremoana and we have a huge pollution problem at Waikaremoana. As you seal the road, it increases the traffic, people buy their alcohol and their products in Wairoa, Hawke's Bay Napier and then they dump it at Waikaremoana," Kruger said.
"We get nothing from regional council or district council to clean up the mess, we have to pay for it ourselves.
"If it wasn't sealed then we may have a chance to look at the alternatives - alternatives to bitumen.
"There are several options that have been tested around the world that are a lot more eco-friendly."
Kruger said he has spoken with NZTA but refused to comment on what those discussions were about.
Ngati Ruapani Ki Waikaremoana spokesman Vern Winitana said having the road sealed would "improve the quality of life" for many of the residents in the district.
"We've had to endure this road for many generations and we would like to see it sealed completely.
"It's quite a treacherous road, particularly in the winter time. We have regular slips and regular road closures.
"What we want is a really safe road for people to be able to drive, and one that is not going to degrade the vehicle that we own travelling on this road every day."
Winitana said Kruger was "making up the story as he goes ... he hasn't really thought too much about it".
"At the end of the day he lives in Taneatua, he's not paying any rates in the Wairoa district and we are concerned about what we as ratepayers pay.
"He's effectively sidelined all the ratepayers of the Wairoa district, which makes a mockery of any political decisions that are being made now in Wellington.
"This can't be allowed to occur."
Winitana said there had been a "unanimous" vote of support among the 55 people present at a Saturday hui that discussed sealing the road.
"[Tūhoe] representatives were there in force and none of them objected. In fact, they supported the word of the people of Ngati Ruapani.
"As far as we are concerned, there is no dispute amongst Ngati Ruapani people about whether the road should be sealed. We support the initiative that the Wairoa District Council were seeking funds to complete this section of the road."
A spokesperson for PGF under-secretary Fletcher Tabuteau confirmed the application would be reconsidered "once it has been properly worked through by officials and stakeholders", including Tūhoe.
The Monday PGF announcements will still be held in Hastings and Central Hawke's Bay. No event will be held in Wairoa now but a "significant chunk" of money is expected to be announced for that area.
Little says they "have got to" hold on to hope that it will be completed. "People have grown up hoping this was going to happen."