A senior scientist withdrew from a river project when bosses signalled they wanted contentious findings removed. David Williams reports

The end seemed in sight.

Following a steering group meeting in November last year, Environment Canterbury senior hydrological scientist Wilco Terink circulated the executive summary and conclusions of a report on the Rakaia River he’d been working on for two-and-a-half-years.

“Although it is still a draft (need to implement the reviewer’s comments), I do not think the conclusions will change significantly,” he wrote.

Terink’s report uncovered evidence the Rakaia’s national water conservation order was being breached, and consent limits for water-takes were, on occasion, being exceeded. Those claims potentially implicated two major players – NZX-listed TrustPower, which operates a hydro-electricity scheme at Lake Coleridge, and the South Island’s largest irrigation company, Central Plains Water, which receives lake water from Trustpower via the Rakaia.

The report might also have been seen as embarrassing to the regulator itself. It revealed Trustpower ignored ECan’s advice to seek an Environment Court declaration to ensure its new operating regime for the lake complied with the water conservation order. Despite the advice having the added impetus of being sent through a law firm, the regulator didn’t follow it up.

After receiving Terink’s email last November, Suzanne Gabites, the regional council’s hydrology science team leader, emailed the personal assistant of science director, Dr Tim Davie, seeking a meeting. “We really need Tim to know about this and have his input at this point.”

The half-hour meeting occurred on the morning of November 20.

About midday, Dennis Jamieson, ECan’s project leader of water infrastructure, wrote to his colleagues, suggesting the “next step for Rakaia engagement”, starting with an approach to Mark Pizey, the general manager of Central Plains Water, and three rūnanga.

“Thanks Dennis but please hold fire,” Gabites responded within 10 minutes.

The Rakaia report was clearly sensitive, and being escalated.

In the morning meeting with Davie, it had been agreed once Terink finished the report, incorporating changes suggested by external reviewer Tim Kerr, he would write a memo “with a summary of the conclusions about TrustPower and CPW” to science director Davie. That would then be shared with ECan’s executive leadership team (ELT).

Gabites finished her email to Jamieson: “I think best that we wait direction from ELT before we proceed with external ‘socialising’.”

These internal emails, and others released to Newsroom under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA), paint a picture of a snowballing situation which led to Terink clashing with managers, and the report’s main conclusions being hidden from the public.

A sanitised “draft” version of the report, with the executive summary, conclusions and recommendations removed, was released to fishing groups, after a LGOIMA request, a few months back. Newsroom’s report of the leaked original has prompted the Environmental Defence Society to consider legal action.

Terink left ECan earlier this year. Approached for comment for this story, the scientist – contacted at his new consultancy Q-Hydrology – said he was forbidden from disclosing information about the project. Davie declared that in a letter delivered to Terink on his final day.

The letter wasn’t released as part of the LGOIMA response to Newsroom. Davie said it wasn’t provided either because it was an employment issue or withholding it was necessary to protect privacy.

The science director said via email: “We don’t discuss individual employees however all Environment Canterbury employment agreements include clauses around confidentiality, which apply while a staff member works for us and also after they leave.”

Lake Coleridge, home to Trustpower’s hydroelectric power scheme, stores and releases water down the Rakaia River for farm irrigation. Photo: Francis Vallance/Flickr/Creative Commons

In January this year, Terink said he’d gone through Kerr’s external review and, a month later, incorporated tracked changes from internal reviewer Jen Dodson.

“I guess the last step is a sign off by Maureen/Tim,” Terink wrote, referring to Maureen Whalen, the latter of whom was the acting section manager of surface water science, and Davie. (Mid-year, after six years at ECan, Whalen left for a hydrogeology job in Washington, United States.)

Whalen’s comments, on March 3, focused on the executive summary, which she wanted reduced to one page. Gabites condensed it to 1.5 pages, making it “really punchy and to the point”. “Huge job Wilco,” she wrote, “I definitely owe you a beer”.

By then, however, news of the report had filtered to other arms of ECan – including the operations team, known as ops, which is responsible for consents, compliance and enforcement – and there appeared to be some discomfort.

“I suggest we sit down with Tim when you have sorted the ES and explain some of the conclusions,” Gabites wrote on March 9. “I know he has had visits from Marty (and maybe others) from ops.”

Ahead of a March 18 meeting with Davie, Jamieson – who last year suggested the next steps for Rakaia engagement – circulated draft notes which suggested there would be external scrutiny of the report and it was an “opportunity for ops to ‘step up’”.

However, the notes – which Jamieson warned might look a bit “waffly” – also indicated ECan’s intention to avoid the compliance aspects of the Terink’s report; which had seemingly strayed into foreign territory.

A section headed “role clarity – reminder” said the Canterbury Water Management Strategy was “non-regulatory”, and ECan science provided “non-regulatory information”.

The Rakaia project should “emphasise science/data/gaps etc” and identify matters for further investigation – “ie. possible/potential anomalies with consent/wco compliance”. The operations team would then take “ownership” of investigations, commissioning further science work as needed.

(Previously, Trustpower has said its consented water takes are measured, and it is confident its operations are compliant with resource consent conditions. Central Plains (CPWL) said further work was needed to ensure the report’s data modelling was accurate.)

Following the meeting, the Rakaia report was forwarded to ECan’s chief scientist Fiona Shanhun. (Gabites noted Davie “was going to chat with Fiona before she starts on it”.)

Shanhun still hadn’t responded by April 15. “Thanks for your patience!” she wrote to Terink, noting she intended to provide comments within a week, at the latest.

ECan didn’t provide Shanhun’s comments to Newsroom. It emerges in other emails they were written on paper, in pencil.

Meanwhile, in May, an external emailer, whose name is redacted, asked Terink when his study would be made public.

The email raised concern about “deteriorating conditions on the Rakaia, one of our major fishing rivers”. “This report could be crucial to the Long Term Plan, as well as holding great interest for North Canterbury Fish & Game, NZ Salmon Anglers Assn, Niwa Ltd, NZ Forest & Bird Society, Ministry of Environmental, and Canterbury University environmental students.”

Terink replied the report didn’t yet have approval from Davie or Shanhun. “I think ECan wants to sit down with CPWL and Trustpower first before they make the report available to the public. Unfortunately, this is something that I cannot control.”

A month later, with progress seemingly at a standstill, Terink’s frustration burst into the open.

ECan science director Tim Davie. Photo: ECan

On June 5 – a Saturday – Terink wrote to Gabites and hydrological science team leader Daniel Clark. His email revealed the full extent of ECan’s nervous shuffling of the report, and the senior scientist’s growing anger.

While some passages are redacted, there is enough to convey the heat of the moment.

Having worked on the report for more than two years, Terink said he felt he was the person who knew all its ins and outs. The report had been reviewed internally and externally “a zillion times”. “It is just going around in circles and circles with no end in sight.”

The frustrated scientist laid out the ECan’s formal protocol for reviewing technical reports. “Unfortunately this process has not been followed at all.”

By January he’d worked through the internal and external reviews. What happened next was, in his view, not part of the protocol.

There was a second internal review by Dodson, a third internal review by Gabites and Whalen, and Shanhun then took more than a month to read the report. Chief scientist Shanhun made constructive suggestions, Terink said, but also tried to review the report technically – something already done in January.

Her suggestions were made “with a pencil”, elongating the process. (“Can all ECan staff now use a pencil to do track changes in someone else’s work?” Terink exclaimed.)

After implementing Shanhun’s changes he hoped the report could be finished. “But unfortunately management decided to again carry out another technical review by some people [later named as Shanhun and surface water science manager Helen Shaw] who think they are the technical experts on my work”.

Terink said he’d done his best to produce a scientifically sound report, which had been reviewed internally and externally. ECan hadn’t stuck to its review protocol, he said – further, it had degraded his work.

He announced he wanted his named removed from the report. “I only put my name on a scientific publication or report if I agree to the contents and know what those contents are. Unfortunately this is not the case anymore with the Rakaia report.”

Gabites’ reply, sent on the Monday, is also partially redacted.

She suggested a discussion be held that week to try and “resolve this report”. (As an aside, Gabites mentioned Davies had arranged a meeting with Central Plains Water for Friday – “would be great to have you there,” she told Terink.)

On June 8, after a phone call, Terink told Gabites his preference would be for ECan to use the report, with his name on it, “as it was two weeks ago when I got it back from Fiona”. “We need to keep in mind that this work is quite a complex matter so it doesn’t surprise me that some people don’t understand the contents and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The alternative: “ECan can do whatever they want to do with the report but my name may not appear on or in the report.”

Further negotiations ensued. Terink agreed certain people could edit certain paragraphs, and if he was happy with the changes he’d allow his name to remain on the report. He wouldn’t agree to a second author’s name being added, however. “If people see two names on it then that would give the impression that it was a 50/50% job by both authors and that is surely not the case here.”

The agreed focus was on “the results section of the report (only the Trustpower bits)”.

Another month elapsed. On the morning of July 9, Clark, the hydrological science team leader, and Gabites met Terink again to try and forge a way forward. They acknowledged Terink’s frustration but told him scientific reports needed to be “independent and unbiased”. Science reports are “objective”, and it’s the compliance team’s responsibility to act on the information “rather than us directing their work”.

In an email sent later that day, Clark wrote: “A few parts of the Rakaia report seem to point to individual consent holder activities rather than focusing on the hydrology.”

Clark edited the report, largely to make sections clearer – adding simpler explanations before complex sections – “or focusing on the technical information rather than the consent holder”.

“I have removed the recommendations related to reviewing consents and compliance and added: ‘Work with major consent holders to develop more transparent monitoring solutions which will allow a simpler way to assess compliance. Ideally this would include as near to instantaneous data sharing as possible’, as this highlights the need for improvement without recommending compliance actions beyond our science team.”

The report, Clark wrote, was just one step, and there would likely be more work, discussion and reporting. “This report does not have to do everything.”

Irrigation has been a salve for parched farmland on the banks of the Rakaia River, but is too much water being taken? Photo: Google Earth

Clark’s email contained many bullet points, the seventh of which was redacted by ECan. This was the most important to Terink.

“I won’t change my mind on that point,” he told Clark. “So I think it is useful to clarify asap whether it’s going to be removed from the report.”

If it was removed – “that is perfectly fine with me” – so must his name.

And so it came to pass. On July 22, Terink wrote to Clark and Gabites, copying in Shanhun and Davie, confirming he wasn’t satisfied with the edits of the Rakaia report and “from a professional and ethical point of view I cannot allow this report to be published with my name on or in it”.

One of the final attempts to broker a deal happened on Friday August 13.

The only positive thing to come from the meeting, Terink wrote to Gabites on August 19, was “news that there will be a second report about compliance that Richard P [presumably Richard Purdon, mentioned in earlier emails] and I could work on”.

“That tells me ECan is actually willing to take action based on the technical work I carried out. That made me change my mind with author name on the report, as I think to see something being done with my findings.”

But the situation fell apart again after the final meeting, on September 9, after which Gabites wrote to Terink and Davie.

The nub of the issue is potentially clearer, with Gabites stating Shanhun’s review of the Rakaia report raised concerns about “several paragraphs exposing organisational risk”.

Terink responded the evidence related to Trustpower and Central Plains was clear “and this should remain in the report”.

As Terink pointed out in the meeting, the project’s scope, signed off by Helen Shaw, allowed for compliance matters.

Kerr’s review raised the “adversarial nature of some of the work”, which Terink said he addressed. “We disagree,” Gabites wrote. It also defended the experience and qualifications of Shaw, Shanhun, and Clark.

The review process “may have let you down”, Gabites wrote to Terink, but his reactions to feedback “need to change”. “We discussed possibly a lack of support through the process, and you reminded us that the scope does discuss compliance.”

Clark’s run-through of the report was completed, and another review by Gabites and Shaw was underway.

But there was still a butting of heads. Terink was concerned the changes were being hidden from him. Gabites wrote: “To which we reminded you that this is difficult as you actually withdrew from the project and took name off the report”.

Terink told his bosses he was passionate about the Rakaia catchment and wanted to see the finished report. But tensions remained. “BUT really waiting to see how you are and if you’re willing to take part any further,” Gabites wrote

The email ends by continuing the series of “reminders” to its senior scientist.

“Reminder that when you are part of an organisation, sometimes you need to bend a bit.” And while the review process needed to be nailed down, “we reminded you that sometimes need arises to step outside of a set process”.

Terink left ECan soon after, and the Rakaia report remains unpublished by ECan, apart from a sanitised copy circulated to fishing groups under LGOIMA. (Gabites’ email noted the intervention of the Ombudsman. “We indicated the report should be ready for release mid Sept. We may look to lockdown and Wilco on leave to push out slightly.”)

Davie told Newsroom the “draft report” is “part of a larger/longer project about the Rakaia”.

“That project is ongoing and there will be more reports. Environment Canterbury runs a rigorous review process to ensure that its reports are objective, scientifically robust and defendable.”

With comments like that it’s little wonder Terink felt slighted.

How can a scientist not feel his work is being challenged in a cycle of constant reviews, “with no end in sight”? And if a scientific analysis reveals evidence of breaches, of either consents or, more importantly, a nationally important water conservation order, why not include that information in a “robust” report?

Without seeing the report’s different iterations it’s hard to tell if the changes were cosmetic or structural, ripping out all mentions of potential non-compliance.

But the emails between Terink and his bosses make one thing clear.

For more than a year, ECan’s top scientific managers were aware that two big companies might be taking more water than they were legally allowed. And for much of that time, they arm-wrestled with the senior scientist who uncovered the evidence about how much would be disclosed and in what way.

Several questions arise. If the regional council’s monitoring was robust shouldn’t it have known about this years ago? And what of the public’s right to know?

The potential breaches have only come to light through Newsroom’s reporting of the leaked May version of the Rakaia report. Since last November, when Terink circulated his key findings, how has ECan served the public interest? The evidence is unclear.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

Leave a comment