Central Government has recently confirmed that responsibility and costs fall onto local government and local land owners if genetically engineered crops contaminate natural crops or the environment and have to be cleaned up.
A letter from the Minister for the Environment indicates that when or if contamination occurs it will be the person affected by the “pollution” not the “polluter” who will pay.
These concerns have been raised by a group of councils worried about their vulnerability on behalf of ratepayers generally, as a result of the way Hazardous Substances and New Oganisms (HSNO) Act has been written.
“Until now Government had not clarified that we would be the ones carrying the can, even though that is clearly the way the act is written,” said working party member, retiring Whangarei District Councillor Robin Lieffering.
“Finally they have agreed that local councils do have a duty of care under their Resource Management Act responsibilities.”
Councillor Lieffering was reporting back to Whangarei District Council on the outcome of a letter to the Minister from the Inter-council Working Party on GMO Risk Evaluation and Management Options (comprising the Whangarei, Far North, Kaipara and Rodney District Councils, the Waitakere and Auckland City Councils, along with the Northland Regional Council).
The group met recently to discuss the Minister for the Environment, the Hon David Benson-Pope, response to a letter sent to the Government by the Working Party late last year. The letter outlined a number of concerns held by councils on the Working Party regarding possible future land uses involving genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the Northland/Auckland regions.
The Working Party resolved at its meeting to invite both the Auckland Regional Council and North Shore City Council to join the Working Party and to seek support from Local Government New Zealand, before lobbying Central Government at a higher political level within the Working Party. Auckland Regional Council has accepted the invitation and is now a full member.
It was felt within the Working party that by demonstrating to Central Government the growing dissatisfaction within local government throughout New Zealand to the present legislation regulating GMOs, particularly in relation to liability, Central Government could be persuaded to work with local government to accommodate their concerns.
These concerns include questions over liability for possible harm caused to the environment and potential costs arising from GMO land uses to both existing land users and local authorities. Under the liability provisions in the HSNO Act, existing land users face potential financial loss from contamination (or perceived contamination) of non-genetically modified produce, whilst councils face possible clean up costs for harm or threatened harm to the environment.
The response by the Minister for the Environment was extremely disappointing, according to Dr Kerry Grundy, chairperson and coordinator of the Inter-council Working Party. The response did not alleviate the concerns raised by the Working Party. Indeed, the Minister’s letter made it clear that Central Government has no intention at this time to amend the HSNO Act to incorporate local government concerns.
In particular, and of most concern to those councils on the Working Party, no changes are to be made to improve the liability provisions of the legislation. This means that if a GMO release is in accord with an approval from the national regulator ERMA, and subsequent damage arises to either existing land users or to the environment, the costs will lie with the adversely affected parties, and in regard to the environment, with local councils.
The Bio-tech companies, who develop the technology and the parties releasing the GMOs, will not be liable for costs arising from harm caused to other land users or to the environment. This, according to Dr Grundy, is patently unfair and not in accord with the concept of natural justice nor with the polluter pays principle.
A proposed community consultation programme, including a telephone poll of residents, to gauge community support for local and/or regional regulation of GMO land uses under the Resource Management Act has been re-scheduled until after the October local body elections to allow time for further lobbying of Central Government.
For further information and/or copies of the letters involved, contact:
GE Working Group member
Whangarei District Councillor
Dr Kerry Grundy
Whangarei District Council
Phone: (09) 430 4200