Auckland Council rejects 35-year Pakiri sand mining bid

By Geoff Prickett and Nikki Mandow for Newsroom

Residents have won a major battle against McCallum Bros, Auckland’s biggest supplier of sand for concrete, as Auckland Council rejects a resource consent application to take more sand off a beach north of Auckland.

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Residents during a protest to draw attention to their fight against the extraction of the sand. Photo: Supplied / Elevated Media

In a sometimes strongly worded 124-page decision, a panel of four council commissioners told dredging company McCallum Bros it had failed to supply evidence that sand mining, which has been going on for decades along that stretch of coast, didn’t harm the seabed, the beach, and marine and bird life.

McCallum had applied to suck up and carry away up to 2 million cubic metres of sand over the next 35 years on what’s called the ‘far shore’ section of the coast – from 25 metres to 40 metres from the beach.

McCallum also has two other sand mining consent applications pending with Auckland Council, for the inshore (5-10m) and the mid shore (15-25m). In total, it is looking to take up to 9 million cubic metres of sand over 35 years to use in concrete for the construction sector.

Save Our Sands, a collaboration between local and environmental organisations and tangata whenua, argue sand mining is wrecking the dunes, destroying the seabed and putting a wide variety of wildlife, including the rare fairy terns that nest on the beach, at risk.

Fairy terns

The rare fairy terns. Photo:

The commissioners agreed the risks were too high.

With the ‘far shore’ application being decisively rejected, McCallum’s chances for the two closer to the beach – and therefore potentially more damaging to dunes and wildlife – don’t look hopeful.

Those are due to be decided at a hearing in July or August, the council says.

Mana whenua impact key

One of the commissioners’ strongest arguments against the resource consent applications revolved around the “significant and adverse” impact of sand extraction on mana whenua and local people.

“We accept the evidence of Ahi Kaa that the past and cumulative effects they have identified on their cultural landscape and seascape are significant and adverse and will continue under the current MBL [McCallum Bros Ltd] application.”

Save Our Sands also argues its GPS and other monitoring suggests McCallum has a history of its dredger boats straying outside the geographical area they were meant to be extracting from – and likely taking more sand from the seabed than allowed under their resource consent.

Opponents also condemn Auckland Council’s compliance and enforcement team, which they say has consistently failed to monitor what McCallum is doing over the past two decades – relying instead on the company to self-report its daily haul.

McCallum denies wrongdoing, as does the council, with a council spokesperson telling Newsroom: “We are confident that a robust monitoring regime has been followed in this regard and we have not received any information to suggest any breaches have taken place.”

However, in a veiled criticism, the resource consent panel says in its ruling there is evidence of breaches of McCallum’s permits and council inaction.

“We are unaware of what action Auckland Council is taking, or plans to take with respect to this non-compliance,” the commissioners say.

McCallum has 15 days – until May 27 – to appeal the Auckland Council decision to the Environment Court. A company spokesperson told Newsroom the company was still assessing its options in terms of an appeal. They didn’t provide details of any possible future steps should the other Pakiri sand mining resource consents also be refused.

Pakiri Beach

Pakiri Beach Photo: Creative Commons / Piotr Zurek

‘Almost immediate crisis’

A report commissioned by McCallum Bros in 2019 and presented to the resource consent hearing estimated Auckland infrastructure requirements of $26 billion over the next decade, with sand a key component.

“The majority of this investment requires significant volumes of concrete and therefore significant volumes of sand.”

The author of the report, Greg Akehurst of Market Economics, said simply replacing Pakiri sand with sand from elsewhere in the country was uneconomic. “Sand is a low value, high transport cost item that needs to be sourced close to final use; sources in the south should be used by southern developments while developments in the centre and north should be supplied by the northern sand.”

Meanwhile, a statement from the Aggregate & Quarry Association following the Auckland Council decision warned of an “almost immediate crisis for road and building construction” because of the resource consent being refused.

The association’s chief executive, Wayne Scott, says replacing the volumes from Pakiri will be difficult. Other alternatives, including bringing sand in from the Kaipara Harbour on Northland’s west coast, will be more expensive or “cause major increases in traffic congestion and carbon emissions”, he says.

“Like other quarry materials, sand is in hot demand and we are already struggling to meet demand in the midst of a housing and infrastructure boom.”

Kaipara Harbour looking back towards Parakai with Shelly Beach wharf in the foreground.  South Head, New Zealand

Shelly Beach wharf and Kaipara Harbour. Photo: RNZ/ Brad White

Save our Sands called the Aggregate & Quarry Association’s projections of a construction crisis “scaremongering from the vested corporate interests”.

While there may be increased transport costs with sand from the Kaipara Harbour, they will be less than the industry projections, Save Our Sands coordinator Ken Rayward says.

“Sand is only a small part of the concrete supply chain, and we do not expect a significant change in the delivered cost and negligible impact on project costs.

“​​The council has taken a brave but necessary decision in the case of Pakiri sand mining. Reduced demand, changing economic conditions, and climate change are likely to fully justify it, even though the aggregate and construction sectors find it testing.

“However, the preservation of a sensitive and vulnerable coastline might be just the first of many such challenges they face.”

Business as usual

In fact, in the short term at least, the Auckland Council resource decision has no impact at all on extraction at Pakiri Beach.

Sand mining continues unabated.

That’s because McCallum’s far shore permit – allowing it to extract 230,000 tonnes a year – doesn’t expire until March 2023.

In the meantime, although its inshore permit expired in September 2020, a quirk of the system means McCallum Bros has been able to continue extraction while it waits for the resource consent hearing – now scheduled for late July or early August.

And in a crazy twist, that hearing will be in front of a totally new set of Auckland Council commissioners, who will start from scratch coming up to speed with the topic and looking at all the evidence from both sides.

Save Our Sands community spokesperson and Pakiri local Jessie Stanley says it’s not just a huge drain of time and money for the protest group, but also for Auckland ratepayers.

She estimates a big resource management hearing like this one can cost upwards of $1 million, including council time and experts.

So having two resource consent hearings for what is basically the same activity on the same beach is a huge waste, Stanley says.

“It’s a real outrage. These new commissioners will have to get up to speed with all the evidence – thousands of pages of legal and science documents. They will have to visit the beach, listen to the lawyers, listen to the experts, just like the other commissioners did.”

Wider implications

The Auckland Council decision follows an almost 10-year fight over whether mining company Trans Tasman Resources could dig iron ore out of the seabed off Taranaki. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled it couldn’t.

Rayward says the two rulings could have big implications in terms of setting precedents around protecting the seabed, including around fishing.

“I don’t think it’s a long bow to suggest this impacts anything to do with destruction of the seabed.”

He says Save Our Sands is cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the second (near shore and mid shore) hearing.

“This is a profound victory. The far shore consent was considered by everyone as the most difficult and the one we were least likely to win because in theory there is less impact when mining is further out and deeper.

“But the commissioners identified that the disruption, even at that depth, is unacceptable.”

This article was first published by Newsroom.

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