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The follow-up inquiry into the dumping of demolition waste into the Clutha River is taking place after Otago Regional Council staff refused to talk to the Environmental Protection Authority last year.
The dumping of rubble and other debris into the river in Balclutha last March led to construction company Andrew Haulage receiving two infringement notices, but the ORC also received a formal warning because advice from its staff led to the dumping going ahead.
The ORC called in the EPA to conduct the investigation because its staff had been involved, yet emails between the two organisations, released under the Official Information Act, show the ORC soon brought in lawyers to protect them.
Now, the ORC says its staff were within their rights not to take part in the EPA investigation.
The EPA has defended its investigation despite the limits on its information gathering and ORC councillors unanimously released more detail about the follow-up inquiry into ORC actions.
ORC deputy chairman Cr Michael Laws said the new inquiry was initiated in part because questions remained unanswered when ORC staff refused to speak to the EPA.
"Why when you initiate an inquiry, you call in an external agency, would you then have sections of the staff refuse to answer or co-operate — co-operate with or answer any questions from them?" he asked.
Cr Laws, who first obtained the emails between the organisations, said councillors had been left in the dark about the EPA investigation and its resulting report until the Otago Daily Times started asking questions about it last year.
ORC chairman Andrew Noone said the staff who declined to be interviewed in the EPA investigation were to be interviewed in the new inquiry, led by retired High Court Judge Sir Graham Panckhurst.
This time there would be an amnesty for staff to remove previous concerns about consequences for them, Mr Noone said.
There would be no hearing "unless for some compelling reason the need for one emerges", the terms of reference for the new inquiry, released last week, said.
Names of those interviewed would not be revealed in a final report, to be provided to Mr Noone as soon as reasonably manageable, the terms said.
Last year’s emails between the ORC’s lawyer and the EPA investigator show ORC staff at first seemed willing to co-operate, but later did not want to take part in the investigation unless the EPA turned over all the information it had gathered about the incident.
EPA investigator Naomi Middleton said that was impossible due to the deadlines the authority was working to.
The resulting EPA report noted the lack of evidence limited its ability to assess the situation.
However, EPA compliance, monitoring, and enforcement general manager Gayle Holmes this week said the recommendations provided to the ORC considered all the information available at the time, and were based on the information the EPA was legally able to collect.
"Although the Environmental Protection Authority was unable to consider evidence from the ORC staff who declined to be interviewed, we were able to carry out a thorough investigation under the Resource Management Act and make our recommendations accordingly," she said.
An ORC spokesman said when an investigation was launched under the RMA, the Bill of Rights applied, including those under investigation having all information about the matter being investigated, and the right of individuals not to make a statement.
To date staff had fully co-operated with the new inquiry, passed over 6000 pages of documentation, and were awaiting further information about what was required, the spokesman said.