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Published: 2014-05-30 00:00:00

Waikato Regional Council is being lobbied to drop a prosecution for possible breaches of the Resource Management Act. Council chief executive Vaughan Payne explains why turning a blind eye is not an option.

Waikato people expect the regional council to take action to protect our environment. In fact, the law demands it.

However, from time to time, the council comes under pressure to ignore practices that negatively affect the quality of air, water and soil, or harm native plants and animals.

We’re told good people should not be prosecuted. Often these appeals are from people who don’t know or accept that causing harm to the environment is a criminal offence under the Resource Management Act (RMA).

The RMA sets out how the effects of activities on the environment should be managed, with the regional council being responsible for enforcing the rules to protect the environment. 

Unfortunately, whether through lack of knowledge or carelessness, good people can do bad things to the environment. Someone can breach the RMA without intending to do so. 

While people are likely to demand the book be thrown at those responsible for a headline-grabbing disaster, things are not so clear cut when people perceive no victim or obvious damage.

However, repeated everyday actions that go undetected for a long time have the potential to cause harm. The damage only becomes clear when the cumulative effect overwhelms the environment’s capacity to withstand the assault.

We aim to investigate all reports of serious non-compliance or offending. We are alerted to activities that might be harming the environment by the public, our own monitoring or an incident. 

If investigations find serious breaches of air, soil or water protection rules, warranted staff can recommend prosecuting the case in court. In the Waikato, the regional council is the only agency specifically tasked with taking these prosecutions.

Prosecution is relatively uncommon for us. We follow up on about 3000 complaints, incidents or potential consenting issues a year but only take about 10 to 15 prosecutions.

We don’t take a prosecution lightly. These are criminal proceedings with serious consequences for anyone convicted.  We therefore insist on a decision-making process that goes through several levels of scrutiny, including independent legal review of the evidence, before we go ahead with a prosecution.

The regional council does not decide whether a person is guilty or not guilty. That is the task of the district court presided over by a judge with specialist expertise in environmental matters.  The court also decides on the most appropriate sentence, generally a fine or reparation.

Any court case is an adversarial process which can put us in conflict with the very people we would rather be working alongside.

Some say we are heavy-handed.

In response to recent comments about the way we carry out our regulatory duties, the council’s audit and risk committee will be reviewing current information and determining the need for further independent review of the council’s regulatory processes.

While our focus has always been on helping people to comply with the rules through education and support, we are raising the bar even higher to improve customer service and community partnerships. We believe we will get better long term outcomes through stepping up our information, education and incentives to encourage changes in behaviour to help protect our environment.

So, I come back to my deep unease at any lobbying to stop prosecutions. The central tenet of the legal system is the independence of the prosecutor who should not be put under any pressure, political or otherwise.

The regional council must carry out its regulatory role without fear or favour. Our staff must objectively present the evidence to the court. And we – as a community – must leave it to the judge to hear the facts from all sides and decide whether the defendants are guilty or not guilty of environmental crime.