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Public agencies challenged

Public agencies challenged

Opinion: Jamie McFadden

A recent scientific report once again reveals why some people have lost trust and faith in public agencies like the Environment Canterbury regional council.

I’m referring to the river margins report that has emerged after our suspicions were first raised when we read a story in another media organisation.

The article repeated ECan’s claim of a huge loss of riverbed margin to intensive farming, with the worst river in Canterbury being the Blythe, with a massive 80% loss.

But Blythe Valley landowners immediately raised concerns that the science was wrong, and they were being defamed.

Following a full analysis of the report, including an independent appraisal, and field assessment of the full length of the Blythe River, we discovered that there was no riverbed margin that had been converted to intensive farming, as claimed by ECan.

One explanation could be that the use of the aerial and satellite imagery mistakenly identified lush green from two unusually wet summers as being conversion to intensive farming.

Some locals claim it was deliberate as part of an agenda by some within ECan that is “out to get farmers”.

Whether it is incompetence or deliberate, the net result is the public have been misled.

However, there was more.

The river margins report was peer reviewed by two senior scientists, independently reviewed by NIWA, and approved by ECan’s chief scientist. An Official Information Act request was lodged for the NIWA review but both ECan and NIWA refused. That was challenged and ECan released a heavily redacted NIWA review but NIWA themselves still refused. After indicating the issue would go to the Ombudsman, ECan released the full NIWA review but NIWA remained steadfast, probably not realising that ECan had released the review in full.

Further research revealed that the ECan person overseeing the report, one of the ECan senior scientist peer reviewers, and the NIWA scientist, along with others, used the flawed river margins report in a submission on braided rivers to the environment select committee.

That the NIWA scientist felt confident to put their name to this letter, referencing the ECan report, when their peer review excluded data review or interpretation, raises questions regarding the validity and lack of due process for conducting the review.

Despite proving the report and the processes behind it were flawed, we have been met with a stonewall from both ECan and NIWA. While some wording tweaks have been made to the original report, neither organisation is owning up to the fact the report was flawed. No public correction, no apology to either the Blythe Valley landowners or the wider Canterbury farming community.

There are many aspects that are of significant concern to the public. If we cannot trust the science from our scientists, where does that leave us? Science from regional councils feed into national freshwater data and is used to inform policy and regulations.

How much of the science is flawed and how many policies and regulations are being developed based on flawed science?

It all takes me back a year ago when I shared a video on social media that demonstrated how ECan misled freshwater data for the Hurunui River in North Canterbury.

At each step – from data collection, analysis, and presentation of the data – I described how flawed processes led to conclusions that were false.

The Hurunui River was incorrectly deemed unswimmable, based on data collected from a stagnant side stream rather than the river itself.

Increasing trends in phosphorus and nitrogen were found to be incorrect.

Farmers were blamed for high E. coli readings when DNA analysis found it was coming from seagulls.

Now, 12 months on, and another flawed scientific report reinforces why we continue to seriously doubt the science from ECan.

Through my work in both Groundswell and Rural Advocacy Network, we are finding misinformation and flawed science is prevalent among public agencies and the Government.

While it is extremely time consuming researching these issues, we will continue to hold public agencies accountable.

But unfortunately for science, the damage is done.

We no longer know who or what information is accurate. This situation is untenable and needs to change.

By Jamie McFadden, Groundswell Environmental Spokesperson