Ashburton council pulls plug on water sale plan

Ashburton council pulls plug on water sale plan

The Ashburton District Council has abandoned its controversial water sale to NZ Pure Blue.

Thousands of locals opposed the deal, which could have seen the rights to 40 billion litres of water sold off to a company which wanted to bottle it to sell offshore.

Mayor Angus McKay confirmed the council had abandoned the sale to Newshub late on Sunday night. The deal's been canned due to the potential buyers failing to supply information to the local council before an imposed deadline.

"The council has twice, in the past year, agreed to extend the due diligence timeframe for the potential purchaser. A further extension was requested until 30 September 2016, but before we granted that we wanted to know more about the specifics of the operation," he says.

"In particular, we wanted confirmation that the plant would be using bottles, not water bladders. This was important in relation to concerns raised by our community.

"The purchaser has not provided this information and it has given us enough cause for concern to cancel the sale and purchase agreement."

The Mayor says the council is also still considering the feedback it received from Ngāi Tahu and Arowhenua Rūnanga, and the online petition and community deputation from the two lobby groups.

NZ Pure Blue was the company in the arrangement with the council. It was incorporated in July last year, and its directors are Royden Hartnett and John Paynter. Walker Davey Limited, a Christchurch business advisory firm, owns the company.

Local resident and opponent to the sale Jen Branje says she can't believe it.

"We're actually beside ourselves. It's been an amazing development and the result of a hell of a lot of work by a lot of people." 

The group Bung the Bore opposing the sale was led by Ms Branje. Early Monday morning a post went up on the group's Facebook which read, "WE WON, WE WON, WE WON!"

"This decision is testament to what can be achieved when communities band together to instigate change. We hope that the outcome of our efforts will encourage others to hold their councils to account."

The land is part of the Ashburton Business Estate and the 10 hectares that's going to be sold, called Lot 9, has an existing consent for extracting water.

The consent allows more than 1.4 billion litres of water to be extracted annually, with just under 4000 cubic metres taken per day. The council was granted this consent from Environment Canterbury (ECan) in 2011.

The water would have come from aquifers - an underground layer of rock saturated in water which can be brought to the surface through pumps.

Ashburton Mayor's response

Mr McKay says every councillor was happy to pull out, "because it was a commercial decision" - insurance wasn't given from the company that bladders wouldn't be used, as well as establishing a train yard at the site, so councillors pulled the plug.

"To a number of councillors there seems to be more jobs if you're putting water in a bottle than if you're just tipping it in a great big bladder."

It has cost council $40,000 for the consents and legal advice throughout the process.

The land is still for sale, but the current council won't be entering any arrangements before the next election.

Mr McKay says he wouldn't consider cutting the consent for Lot 9 because there's a need for a well in the future.

"We are a growing community, we have lots going on here… things such as a potato processing factory and a carrot processing factory that will need large amounts of water.

"We need a piece of land to make one of those industries work in the future."

A win for the community - Green Party

The Green Party says the decision to drop the sale is a win for the Ashburton community.

"Canterbury's water has been polluted and drained by the rapid expansion of the dairy industry in the region, making bore water undrinkable in some areas and most rivers unsafe for swimming," Green Party water spokesperson Catherine Delahunty says.

"So it beggars belief that the council would even consider selling a plot of land with resource consent to bottle pristine artesian water that should belong to the community."

Ms Delahunty says the deal was flawed.

"If they have to sell public land, which is always debatable, it could at least be for something that is endorsed by and benefits the whole community, not just those who stand to make a quick buck.

"Those who profit from the use of water, like those who bottle and sell it as a premium product, should pay for the privilege. Flogging it off to the highest bidder is not a sustainable or even sensible attitude to take towards our water."

Ms Delahunty congratulated the Ashburton community for their fight and says we're likely to see more of this kind of community action being taken to protect water from those who seek purely economic gain.

"Water is a precious resource, and future generations deserve clean and plentiful water as past generations have enjoyed."