Physicist Ron Keam fought a long battle in the 1970s and 1980s to save the remaining geysers. They seemed likely to disappear, because of geothermal development. Keam and fellow scientist Ted Lloyd had documented the decline of geyser activity since the 1950s, but their arguments were ignored. Eventually the matter went to the Court of Appeal. In a landmark decision, the court ruled that geothermal testing and development involved water, and therefore it was necessary to apply for water rights under the Water and Soil Conservation Act. This meant that applicants had to consider the impact of their proposals on the environment and other users, and has had a major impact on preserving surface geothermal features.
Geothermal battle won
Auckland University associate professor of physics Dr Ron Kearn has won a lengthy legal battle to stop the Ministry of Works and Development taking water from the Waimangu geothermal field, southeast of Rotorua.
His victory has thrown into confusion the future of geothermal steam users in the Rotorua area who do not hold water rights.
Three Court of Appeal judges – Mr Justice Cooke, Mr Justice Somers and Mr Justice Holland – made individual decisions in Dr Kearn’s favour overturning an earlier High Court ruling.
Dr Kearn’s fight began in 1978 when he appealed against the granting of a right allowing the ministry to take geothermal water for test purposes from Waimangu.
He said the area was unique because the surface system, created by the 1886 Tarawera eruption, was the only significantly sized one formed in historic times. This meant its complete history could be studied.
His successful appeal to the Planning Tribunal was later overturned by Chief Justice Sir Ronald Davison in the High Court on the grounds that the tribunal had gone outside their brief in seeking to control geothermal energy.
Disputing this interpretation the Court of Appeal said there was some overlap between the Geothermal Energy Act 1953 and the Water and Soil Conservation Act 1967 (now being replaced by the 1981 amendment) in their definition of water.
But it said, where geothermal testing involved the use of “specified natural water” the provisions of the Water and Soil Conservation Act must be compiled with – that is, a water right was necessary.
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Reference: Dominion, 11 March 1982, p. 4
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