By Farah Hancock of RNZ
Sharley Haddon's description of Pakiri Beach's predicament is simple: "If you dig a hole in a bowl of sugar, what happens to the sugar around the edge?"
She thinks almost 100 years of sand mining off Pakiri Beach, north of Auckland, has caused the shore's sand and the dunes to slump into the holes and trenches left by dredging.
To visitors, Pakiri Beach still looks like a slice of paradise; a long, empty arc of white sand extending from the Pakiri to Mangawhai. For locals like Haddon, there's worry. The beach has changed and not for the better.
Some of Pakiri's "white gold" is taken for Auckland shores. Mission Bay, Kohimarama, St Heliers and Herne Bay beaches have all been topped up with it. Most is taken to make ready-mix concrete and feed the city's hungry construction and roading industries.
It's helped build Auckland landmarks, from the Sky Tower to the Waterview tunnel and the Auckland Museum, but it's also made its way into courtrooms, featuring in stoushes over its use.
Pakiri locals have mostly opposed the sand mining. Attempts to put an end to it have largely failed. Still, once again Haddon is rolling up her sleeves to wage war over the sand.
Three consent applications are lodged with Auckland Council. Depending on which ones are approved, anywhere between 2 to 6.3 million cubic metres of Pakiri's sand could be taken over the next 35 years.
Haddon has walked the beach almost every day for the past 50 years and ridden it even more frequently, taking customers of her horse-riding business along the beach and over the dunes.
For years she's watched the sand dredging boat patrol up and down the shore, sucking up the seabed. The dredge pulls everything up from the sea floor, spitting out anything bigger than sand as it goes, and leaving a trench in its wake.
She says over time dunes have shrunk "considerably" and waves have crept closer to the nesting spots of threatened fairy tern and dotterels. When king tides race up the beach, fledglings vanish.
"I've seen distressed adult birds flying around, looking for their young."
Haddon says once upon a time the beach was white, even at low tide. Now when the tide is out what's exposed is brown. She suspects it's because too much sand has been taken.
"I think they've gone down to the mud," she says.
Pakiri's white sand is finite, she says, carried to the beach when the Waikato River entered the sea on the east coast and carried sand from volcanic eruptions. Once it's gone it can't be replaced.
"I also believe that maybe the whole country should look at these beaches, these last bastions without any development on them, as places of national heritage and value and there should be some sort of protection both offshore and onshore."
Her written submission to the most recent resource consent application to take another 2 million cubic metres of Pakiri's sand is blunt. She wants the council to "completely halt this rape of our shores".
If there's a hint of exasperation about Haddon it's because she's fought this fight over and over again. Consent applications and renewals come around like clockwork and her family has a long history of trying to keep Pakiri's sand in Pakiri.
"My husband, Laly Haddon, who's now deceased, spent his life fighting - his young adult life and the rest of it - fighting taking sand."
In the 1990s, Laly Haddon (Ngātiwai) and his family fought to stop Pakiri's sand being taken to top up Auckland beaches in court on cultural grounds. Their case failed and the sand was taken.
This time it's not just Haddon's family fighting for the sand. The community, including iwi groups, is once again trying to protect the sand and is opposing the first of the applications to be heard.
More than 650 public submissions oppose the resource consent application from Kaipara Limited, which asks to take another 2 million cubic metres of sand from the beach over the next 20 years. Just four submissions are in support.
Those against it say sand mining is sucking away their beach a grain at a time, eating into the shore, destroying shellfish beds, stealing safe nesting spots from endangered birds and ruining surf breaks.
The four submissions in favour say the sand is essential for Auckland's growth and economy. In the middle of a housing crisis and climate emergency, sourcing sand elsewhere would mean more transport, more greenhouse gas emissions and more cost.
Submitters opposing the application range from individuals living in the area to organisations, groups and iwi. They include the Department of Conservation, the Auckland Conservation Board, Tara Iti Golf Club, Forest & Bird, the Ngātiwai Trust Board, Ngāti Manuhiri. Some want it declined outright and others are suggesting additional conditions.
In support of the application are Allied Concrete, Bridgeman Concrete, the Aggregate and Quarry Association of New Zealand and McCallum Bros.
But the decision won't be based on how many submissions support or oppose the application, or take into account the long history of community opposition to sand mining.
Unless new evidence is presented at the two-week resource consent hearing, starting today, Auckland Council's recommendation is to approve Kaipara Limited's application, subject to some conditions. It says actual and potential effects of the sand mining proposed are acceptable and can be managed.
The final decision will be made by independent commissioners after they hear submissions from Kaipara Limited, Auckland Council and public submitters.
Kaipara Limited isn't the only company taking Pakiri's sand. Waiting in the wings are two consent applications by McCallum Bros. The company wants to renew a consent to take 2.66 million cubic metres from close to the shoreline over the next 35 years or, preferably, secure a new consent to take sand from deeper water.
The new consent would also run for 35 years, and would allow the company to take an average of 125,000 cubic metres over a five-year period.
When the council said no
There was a time when Auckland officials said no to sand mining. It didn't play out well.
In the early 2000s, the Auckland Regional Council rejected a sand mining consent application from McCallum Bros and Sea Tow. It said taking the sand would eventually lead to erosion of the beach and dunes.
The companies disagreed. They said sand had been taken for decades but no significant erosion could be blamed on sand mining.
The fight ended up in the Environment Court.
The court's decision notes "considerable evidence about retreat of the beach and erosion of dunes" was presented by lay witnesses - people who had observed the beach over many years.
Pinning those changes on sand mining was another matter. Wind, waves and storms all play a part in shifting grains of sand, so who's to say sand mining was to blame?
At the heart of the court case was whether Pakiri's sand gets replenished enough to offset 76,000 cubic metres of sand being taken each year from close to the shore.
There was plenty of disagreement among the science and engineering experts who testified. One suggestion that shells breaking down contributed 90,000 cubic metres a year to the area was labelled "incredible" by one witness and "unrealistic" by another.
The court accepted the 90,000 figure and added that to sediment from land and material washing in from the deeper waters. It came to the conclusion roughly 150,000 cubic metres of shells and other sediment was added to the area each year - almost double what the company sought to take.
It found the disappearance of sand dunes and erosion of the beach couldn't be conclusively linked to sand mining because the material taken was being replaced.
The companies won the case, but it wasn't the end of the matter.
The Auckland Regional Council (ARC) and a society of residents and landowners from Pakiri, called Friends of Pakiri Beach, appealed the decision in the High Court. The council said the Environment Court made a mistake calculating the amount of sand replenishing the area.
"ARC's point of appeal rests on the lack of evidence to support that conclusion," said ARC coastal projects leader Andrew Benson.
The two appellants said the evidence accepted by the Environment Court had so many factual errors they amounted to errors of law.
Their appeal was dismissed. Numbers accepted in this Environment Court case are referenced in Kaipara Limited's submission to the hearing that begins today.
At the time of the dismissal, Friends of Pakiri Beach chairman Nick Williams told the NZ Herald the decision "left the public reliant on woefully inadequate monitoring of the mining consent by the ARC".
More than a decade on, Friends of Pakiri Beach still exists and it's still fighting.
It's asked that all consent applications for sand mining be heard together, so the cumulative effects can be discussed. It has requested the consent be declined, but if it is approved, that strict monitoring and enforcement conditions are placed on it.
This would include the ability to stop sand mining if it is affecting the environment or if it doesn't follow the consent rules.
Evidence compiled by environmental scientist Dr Shaw Mead on behalf of the group and submitted as evidence to the hearing says some monitoring reports the company is supposed to supply to Auckland Council are "uninterpretable" and others appear to be missing altogether.
He also looked at tracking data from the dredging boat, which is operated by McCallum Bros, to see if it was staying within consented areas when it was travelling at dredging speed.
Three random months were selected and the data suggested an average of one potential breach every trip if it was dredging at all times it travelled at a speed slow enough to dredge.
The potential breaches - if the boat was in fact dredging - include dredging too close to shore and travelling across permitted dredging boundaries.
To the north of where dredging is consented is Kaipara District Council, where mayor Dr Jason Smith says he's "leaning in" to support community action against sand mining, but that the council isn't taking part in the consent hearing.
He worries the effects of the sand mining on the Auckland side creep into Kaipara's territory.
Only 12 breeding-age pairs of New Zealand fairy tern remain and they nest from Pakiri to Mangawhai. Volunteers in the region devote hours each summer watching over the nests.
The way he sums it up, his community has a "fragile hold" on the most endangered bird in the country and sand mining can affect nesting spots.
"As far as a fairy tern is concerned, there is no boundary there. There is no concrete line in the sand, literally."
He would like to see dredging close to the shore stopped. His view is the extraction of the sand - particularly the sand brought to the area by the Waikato River before it changed paths - is unsustainable.
"Unlike most other sands in New Zealand, this one is particularly finite. And perched on top of that we have New Zealand's rarest bird."
Smith attended a "Save our Sand" beach protest where he told protesters sand mining "will eventually take away the sand we are standing on right now", but said the council was not in a position to fund a legal challenge.
Does Auckland really need Pakiri's sand?
Based on New Zealand's use of ready-mix concrete, economists for the companies taking sand from Pakiri have worked out how much sand is needed for each person in New Zealand.
In 2018, it estimated 0.35 tonnes of sand was used for every Auckland resident. The total amount needed is expected to rise as the population grows. In 2018, Auckland used 740,000 tonnes, by 2043 it's estimated more than 1 million tonnes will be needed in a year.
The economists say New Zealand's ability to cater for future population growth, and Auckland Council's own GDP growth and export performance aims, relies on the right type of sand being available at the right price.
Almost half the sand Auckland uses comes from Pakiri.
If Pakiri's sand supply was turned off, Auckland's next closest big supply would be on the other side of the North Island. The rougher waters around the Taporapora sandbank already supply almost 400,000 tonnes of sand to Auckland annually, which is offloaded in Helensville. Consents are already held to take another 686,633 tonnes each year from the area until 2027.
Kaipara Limited didn't respond to RNZ's request for comment, however written evidence submitted to the consent application by managing director Steven Riddell is publicly available.
It says the company has looked into the feasibility of "manufactured sand", which is made from crushed hard rock and is used in countries like Japan. He said it's not a viable short or medium term solution for New Zealand as it uses a surplus by-product called crusher dust which isn't produced here. Even if it was, the processing it requires would be double the cost of natural sand.
He also points out the company has listened to the community and experts in the past and now sand is only taken from offshore, where the water is 25 metres or deeper.
He says the consent to take sand from close to the shore is held by McCallum Bros, and he suggests a number of submitters who have opposed Kaipara Limited's application have confused the two consents.
The new application also significantly reduces the area from which it's currently consented to take sand. At present it can take sand from 646 square kilometres. The application seeks to reduce this to 44sq km.
McCallum Bros, the other company with resource consents applications in Pakiri, says with consent applications in place, it plans to be transparent through its own upcoming consent process.
Chief executive Shayne Elstob said the company has one application seeking to renew a consent to take sand from close to the shore, and a new one to take sand from offshore.
It has asked Auckland Council for the consent to be renewed to have limited notification and the offshore consent to be publicly notified. As yet, the council has not decided if the requests will be granted.
"McCallum Bros only seeks to operate under one consent. Our preference is the new consent that is further offshore, but we have applied to renew our current inshore consent should the new consent not be granted."
He says the preference for the offshore consent is based on public feedback objecting to sand being taken close to the shore.
The company has engaged experts to assess the impact of sand mining on the coast. Elstob says these studies have shown sand mining is "sustainable and has a less than minor impact on the environment".
"If resource consent was not granted, this would lead to a massive supply shock to the market and push up the prices of building materials and see prolonged constraints on concrete manufacture until alternative supplies of sand were secured."
Trucking sand from Kaipara Harbour instead of transporting it by barge would mean 10,000 more truck and trailer movements on the Northwestern Motorway each year.
It could also affect important infrastructure projects. Pakiri's sand is being used in the City Rail Link and Central Wastewater Interceptor project as well as residential developments.
"There is also a massive volume of sand within the Mangawhai-Pakiri embayment, amounting to billions of tonnes. The amount of sand being taken is minimal and because the sand system is only partially closed, new sand is also entering the system. This means the extracting process is sustainable," Elstob says.
How much sand is it?
Mangawhai Harbour Restoration Society community spokesperson Ken Rayward estimates what the 2 million cubic metres of sand Kaipara Limited wants to take looks like by using landmarks Mangawhai locals will be able to visualise, like the well-known sandspit.
"If you can imagine the sandspit and the big sand dune, that would be probably half what they plan on taking out."
He says the society has been drumming up local support to oppose the sand mining. Even though it's a fight that has previously been fought, long consent periods mean there's always new people who have shifted into the area who don't know sand mining happens in their region.
The community response so far has been "absolutely fantastic", he says, and he's hoping the support is ongoing. He hopes the commissioners at the hearing will reject the application but he also wants to be ready - "particularly if we have to fund this legally all the way through to the Environment Court".
An event, attended by Smith, where protesters formed the letters SOS on the beach, was one way to raise awareness, but posters calling for the end of sand mining adorn Mangawhai shop windows.
There's even been a screening of the documentary Sand Wars, which looks at sand mining on a global level, including murders committed overseas by what's been dubbed the "sand mafia".
He doesn't suggest New Zealand has its own sand mafia, but does believe sand mining in the Pakiri-Mangawhai area is unsustainable.
"To give the keys to this coastline to somebody to have free rein, as they have done over the past 14 years, would be a very challengeable decision."
Challenging the matter beyond the hearing would involve a court case, and would require donations. Rayward hopes it won't come to that.
"The updated scientific data is so much stronger now. We can really go into this with a great deal more confidence than we could 14 years ago."