Environmental standards set by local government vary so widely from place to place you'd think the science underpinning the rules in one locale was completely different to the science used somewhere else, when in fact it is the same.

The same, but interpreted and presented differently - or perhaps its more correct to say, manipulated differently.

See, part of the problem is there's now so much data on some aspects of the environment, and too little in others, that anyone with a distinct agenda can cherry-pick what they like to back their case, leading to two sets of experts arguing black is blue and blue is black and both, on the face of it, seeming to be right.

As is the case with the debate over nitrogen versus phosphorous in waterways and the varying impacts of each depending on what steps are taken to minimise either - one of the key debacles the Board of Inquiry has to try to adjudge in the Ruataniwha/Tukituki hearing.


Too, vested interests always help determine how a council looks at any problem. In an area dominated by farmers, chances are any sort of land-use regulation will be voted down, because your average farmer hates being told what they can and cannot do.

Which is why the Horizons Regional Council "One Plan" was (and still is) so controversial: because it aims to regulate land on the basis of the effects generated from how it is used.

A regime that's logical, necessary, and well-overdue - but fought tooth and nail by farmers, all the same.

Mind you, setting standards at central government level is just as fraught, because there the vested interests are national bodies employing heavyweight lobbyists; and on a country-wide scale the "variance" argument - one piece of land is unlike any other - tends to translate through into such feeble generic "standards" that you might as well not bother making them.

Again, the impact of nitrogen in water is a case in point.

The government is in the process of passing new regulations that "limit" nitrogen to a level higher than is found in partially-treated sewage. Swim, anyone?

Score one for the ultra-powerful dairy lobby. If this farce becomes law, fencing off waterways to keep stock from doing their business directly into the water will be a colossal joke, because there'll be even more crap running off legally from pasture.

The thing missing in these examples - and from the gutted RMA now too - is the precautionary principle. That is, if a significant effect is likely or even possible, don't do it. Put caution first.

But like National and many of their farming mates, the local bodies charged with protecting and enhancing our environment - the regional councils - seem to have forgotten what that principle is. Certainly most ignore it.

Except, once again, Horizons. Refreshingly, they require oil companies to obtain resource consent before any fracking of exploratory wells takes place, because fracking discharges contaminants to ground. Hawke's Bay, preferring the Taranaki "hands off" model, ignores that aspect and does not ask for consents for that part of the process, as neither does the Gisborne unitary authority.

So while it's great to hear HBRC chairman Fenton Wilson finally arguing the point I've been arguing for years - that regional councils must be retained because of their specific environmental focus - if they don't actually look after the environment with precaution as their watchword, it defeats their purpose.

And in not requiring consents to frack, and happily raising nitrogen levels in the Tukituki regardless of the dangers, HBRC is demonstrating such lack of focus, in spades. Or in wells and cows, anyway.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.