By Charlotte Jones, Local Democracy Reporter
The fight to prevent a water bottling plant expansion near Whakatāne is far from over, with iwi seeking to appeal against a recent High Court decision dismissing their opposition to the plant.
Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa and community group Sustainable Otakiri have had their cases against the expansion of the Otakiri Bottling Plant dismissed in both the Environment and High Courts and are now appealing to the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal against the latest High Court decision made late last year.
The springs have been locally owned for more than 30 years, but for the past five years the board has wanted Creswell NZ, owned by Chinese water bottling giant Nongfu, to take over and grow the business.
Opposition has centred on Māori water rights and the size of the new plant, which will enable one million cubic metres of water to be taken each year, as well as the number of plastic bottles that will be created.
Creswell NZ managing director Michael Gleissner said the further court action was "disappointing" as the case had already been listened to and considered three times by the court.
"I'm surprised that they are throwing good money after bad," he said. "Throughout the whole process we have looked to engage with them and offer solutions to alleviate their concerns."
These solutions have included offering Ngāti Awa a governance role in the business so they can undertake their cultural kaitiaki (guardianship) responsibilities with the water and seconding a Sustainable Otakiri nominee to have a voice around how the water is packaged.
Gleissner said these offers were turned down by the two groups, which he found disappointing.
He said had Sustainable Otakiri engaged with Creswell NZ it would have found that all plastic used was recycled. However, as most of the water would be used for high-end restaurants, it would mainly be packaged in glass.
The water would be sold in New Zealand, China, the Middle East and Europe.
'We still think the project is good'
Gleissner noted that both China and New Zealand had a commitment to end single-use plastic by 2025 and as the plant would not be operational until 2027 it would be complying with that directive.
He also said the company would be lobbying Government to build a plastic recycling centre in New Zealand. Currently there were none.
Concerns have been raised that the company is paying little royalties for the water it is selling, however Gleissner said if the Government was to place a fair levy on water, Creswell NZ would be comfortable paying it.
"Water for sale is only 1 per cent of New Zealand's commercial water take," he said. "The majority is used for horticulture and dairy."
If the plant were to be expanded, 250 construction jobs would be created immediately and 50 ongoing full-time jobs would be created in the plant.
"We still think the project is good and we are confident it will go ahead," Gleissner said. "My main concern now is the staff at the plant and supporting them through this further uncertainty."
Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa manahautu (chief executive) Leonie Simpson said water was an inherited treasure and once it had been removed from the iwi's rohe it would never return.
'It is only fair that govt work with Māori'
"As kaitiaki and mana whenua we have a responsibility to act when decisions impact the natural resources within our rohe," she said.
"We are also concerned about the wider allocation of freshwater rights in Aotearoa. Successive governments have failed to address the very real issue of water rights in New Zealand. It is only fair that Government work with Māori as partners to address the issues of water quality, allocation and broader issues that impact our environment.
"In a country impacted by severe drought and water shortages it is nothing short of negligent to give this resource away."
Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa chairman Joe Harawira said the iwi was focused on developing projects and businesses that were sustainable and created long-term meaningful opportunities for the Ngati Awa people, and that Creswell NZ planned to take a vital, scarce and precious resource forever.
"The mauri of our wai is harmed through Creswell's application," he said. "The Government must address water rights in this country.
"Why are we exporting our purest water when our own people living in Whakatane, Murupara and Kawerau drink water of the lowest acceptable quality for human consumption?
"Why are we giving our water away for free to overseas companies whose shareholders will be the main beneficiaries?
"And why are we supporting a proposal to build a manufacturing plant with the capacity to create 1800 single use plastic bottles per minute?"