She’ll be right

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Now the selection has run its course, the focus of the media has returned to enquiries into the Pike River mine explosion, the collapse of the Pine Gould Corporation building in Christchurch’s horrific February earthquake and Maritime New Zealand’s investigation into the grounding of MV Rena on Astrolabe Reef in the Bay of Plenty. Between the headlines, commissioners and investigators scramble to attribute blame, but it’s impossible not to come to at least one relatively simple conclusion. The hollowing-out of the state’s regulatory infrastructure has, in perhaps these three cases, done New Zealanders few favours.

Even a year from the Pike River explo­sion that claimed the lives of 29 miners and contractors—when one might imagine the country fair groaning under the weight of fresh personnel in the inspectorate—it took days for New Zealand’s only mines inspector to arrive at the Huntly mine still evacuated after a spike in methane levels.

This is a nation that prides itself on a relaxed attitude to uncertainty, convinced that she’ll be right. But she won’t be right. Not always.

When staff of this magazine were preparing data for a graphic on shipping traffic that appears on page 73, it became abundantly clear just how often ships gamble with our environment to shave minutes off passage times. In the month after Rena’s collision with the reef, dozens of ships trav­elled inside the gazetted course for vessels approaching the Port of Tauranga from the south, one transiting between the reef and Motiti Island, two between Motiti and the mainland, and a 231-metre cargo ship travel­ling within a quarter-mile of another reef. Should we have expanded the timescale to include shipping traffic in the year to date, we might have found many more near-misses.

In his appraisal of the Rena grounding, founding editor Kennedy Warne looks at available technology which may mitigate this risk. Yet when the investigation is complete, it will be only the master and second officer charged under the Maritime Transport Act, the agencies enduring only passing scrutiny.

Interestingly, the master and second officer have also been charged under the Resource Management Act relating to the discharge of harmful substances. That implies that those responsible for the ship also had a responsibility for the environ­ment—that as well as allegedly being negligent in their duty, they had committed a crime against the environment.

The drafting of the RMA was presided over by Sir Geoffrey Palmer—profiled on page 26—amid controversy that continues to this day. But once it was enacted in 1991, it enshrined in law a responsibility for the envi­ronment for all who build upon it, work upon it, even sail through it. In the clamour of elec­toral politics, there were voices calling for a drastic overhaul of the RMA that would make it applicable only to human welfare and that ‘intrinsic values’—those environmental ideals that the act was explicitly devised to protect—should not be considered.

The events of 2011, in all their horror and devastation, make it obvious that civil society needs rules to remain civil. That structure and government are every bit the artefact of the human genius as free market innovation. That the environment requires the protection of legislation as much as a country’s citizens do. It’s something to consider while tallying the potential $12.7 billion in royalties for the proposed expan­sion of offshore oil and gas.

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