Westpower has offered to gift $250,000 to a struggling polytechnic if it receives approval to access the conservation land it wants to build a hydro-electric plant on.

A year after the Department of Conservation (DOC) indicated it would make a final decision on Westpower’s application to access conservation land, it has contacted people who made public submissions to the proposal with Westpower’s additional offers.

If it commences, the $100 million project which will divert water from the West Coast’s Waitaha River to create electricity, is expected to create 20 full-time jobs in a region potentially facing job losses as the Government cracks down on approving mining activity on conservation land.

DOC’s handling of the application has been called biased by Forest & Bird.

DOC’s 2016 approval in principle of the hydro-electric project generated a backlash of opposition. At least 2864 submissions were made through a Forest & Bird template, and a Green Party submission was signed by 2343 people when DOC opened its decision to public feedback.

“The Minister could have made the decision a year ago. There has obviously been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the Department, Minister and Westpower.”

Forest & Bird says mitigations suggested by Westpower are “last-minute deal sweeteners” which don’t address conservation concerns over wildlife at risk of extinction, such as whio, long-tailed bats and lizards.

“This consultation is biased in favour of the company, at the expense of the many people who submitted in good faith,” said Forest & Bird’s conservation advocacy manager Jen Miller.

She believes the delay in making a decision is “extremely unusual”.

“The Minister could have made the decision a year ago. There has obviously been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the Department, Minister and Westpower.”

She said the last-minute offers appear to be an attempt at “getting it over the line”.

DOC’s director of planning, permissions and land, Marie Long, said DOC contacted submitters because they felt it was important they were aware of the new information and had an opportunity to comment on it.

She said the process had taken a long time because of the complex issues involved.

“We have followed our usual concession application processes. However, it’s important to remember that this application is more complex than the average application, it is more contentious and there has been an unusually extensive public response to the proposal. The applicant has also showed a willingness to continue to find solutions to accommodate the interests of those who would be affected by the proposal.”

The proposed project would divert water from the Waitaha river above the Morgan Gorge then return it 2.6km further down the river after it had travelled through a tunnel and powerhouse.

The gorge has legendary status among kayakers, who refer to it as the Mt Everest of white water runs. It’s estimated only a dozen have successfully kayaked it.

It’s proposed a maximum of 26 cubic metres of water per second (cumecs) would be diverted, leaving a minimum of 3.5 cumecs flowing through the gorge. This level is well below the 17-22 cumecs kayakers estimate they need to use it.

In DOC’s letter to submitters, Westpower offers to mitigate the loss of the kayaking caused by the project by giving $250,000 to financially-strapped Tai Poutini Polytechnic to be used in a trust promoting kayaking on the West Coast.

The one-off payment would be supplied when the trust is formed, which Westpower suggests should be after all consents, including Resource Management Act consents, are approved. Westpower anticipates the trust will seek additional funding from local and central government.

The company also said it would increase the number of days no water is taken from the river from two days a year to four to allow kayakers to use it. 

Endangered whio like habitats with clean, fast-flowing water.  Photo: Craig McKenzie

Forest & Bird says none of Westpower’s suggested kayaking mitigations address the ecological impact of the project.

“The Waitaha is one of our most outstanding and scenic rivers. More than 25 native bird species including kea, kākā and kārearea, plus long-tailed bats, and forest and green geckos make the Waitaha their home,” said Miller.

Around four hectares of native bush will be felled if the project goes ahead, including the trees thought to be roosts of threatened long-tailed bats.

Whio (blue ducks), which are rarer than some kiwi species, also live in the area. DOC’s website lists their threats as habitat loss, predation and disturbance. Westpower proposes “scaring off” whio or waiting until they fly away before blasting takes place during construction.

Submitters contacted by DOC have until July 4 to respond if they wish to add to their original submission in light of Westpower’s new offers.

DOC said it would take additional comments into account along with original submissions, and a report created by DOC will be given to the Environment Minister David Parker to make a final call on. The decision is expected in the next two months.

If approved, the concession for Westpower to access the conservation land lasts for 49 years.

Westpower were contacted for comment but did not respond prior to publishing.

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