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Jacqueline Rowarth Tough stance 
for a tough job

Smarting from the negative reaction to its seafloor mining decisions, the EPA has hired an expert in explaining science to the masses. Hugh de Lacy talks to Jacqueline Rowarth.

Picking fights with alarmist environmentalists as readily as with self-serving industry bodies – indeed with anyone misrepresenting the science across a range of sustainability issues – has led to Dr Jacqueline Rowarth being appointed chief scientist for the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).
It’s a significant appointment to the government environmental watchdog the reputation of which suffered – deservedly or otherwise – in the successive rejections of two seabed mining resource consent applications last year.
Scooping up ironsand or phosphate nodules off the seabed must surely be two of the least visible forms of environmental disturbance, if not the least destructive of the natural ecology.
Accordingly, the EPA’s successive rejections of Trans Tasman Resources’ (TTR) and Chatham Phosphate Rock’s (CPR) marine resource consent applications – even as highly visible and disruptive land-based applications continued to be approved – seemed to defy fairness, if not logic.
Both listed miners are in the process of filing new applications, but last year’s rejections left the EPA looking like it knew less about marine science and environment than either of the applicants.
Indeed, there was even the suggestion that some of the applicants’ science had to be dumbed down for the EPA panel to get their heads around it.
pg-18-ProfileFurther colouring the EPA’s apparent inability to determine whether either initiative met the standards required for the development of New Zealand’s vast offshore Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the fifth biggest in the world, was the embarrassing direction from the Ombudsman’s Office to take another look at the filing fees it charged CRP, and also whether it breached the Official Information Act by denying CRP access to some of its data.
Whether the agency accepts the criticism or not, the fallout forced it to take a look at its methods of scientific communication, resulting in the decision to create the new position of chief scientist with specific responsibility for communicating that science to the wider public.
Though from an agricultural rather than an extractives industry academic background, Jacqueline Rowarth has demonstrated her ability to address and attack the misunderstanding and misrepresentation that surrounds resource consent and related issues.
British-born, Rowarth has 30 years’ agribusiness teaching experience behind her at Massey and Waikato universities, but through a National Business Review column she’s been writing unpaid since 2000 she’s shown herself prepared to torpedo nonsense arguments and fears from whichever side of the environmental fence they might have originated.
Rowarth, 60, did an honours degree on the presence of lead in roadside honey, then completed a PhD in phosphate cycling with Massey University in 1987.
In the late 2000s her alma mater appointed her professor of Pastoral Agriculture.
In 2012 she took up the post of professor of Agribusiness in Waikato University’s Business School, and it is from there that she will be moving to Wellington in late October to take up her EPA posting.
Her other achievements include the Zonta Award for Excellence in 1994, the New Zealand Science and Technology Medal in 1997, and appointments as Companion to the Royal Society of New Zealand (2001) and Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural Science (2003).
She has also been appointed companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her work in agricultural science.
All of which begs the question of what she knows about issues more specific to the environment, and particularly quarrying and mining ones.
To Rowarth though, there’s no mystery: the focus of her agricultural studies, no less than of her PhD thesis, was nutrient cycles, and in particular those most basic of elements, carbon and nitrogen.
“I have a background in plotting and tracing elements,” Rowarth tells Q&M, “but more so in trying to understand where society thinks there are problems, and either working on that problem or explaining that it’s not as big a problem as people think.

“The things that I’ve done have always been about explaining the importance of science in increasing our understanding, and pushing back the frontiers of understanding by looking at evidence and data.”

“The things that I’ve done have always been about explaining the importance of science in increasing our understanding, and pushing back the frontiers of understanding by looking at evidence and data.”
While recognising the significance of the resource consenting process to the quarrying and mining industries, Rowarth says the EPA’s work as the government agency responsible for regulatory functions relating to the environment extends far beyond that.
The EPA also runs the Emissions Trading Scheme, regulates new organisms and hazardous substances, and controls activities in 
the EEZ.
It already employs five scientists to cover its major portfolios, and Rowarth will report to the chief executive, Dr Allan Freeth.
She’s shown she’s prepared to take a stand over water quality, for example, where the Waikato Regional Council is struggling to deal with the Treaty of Waitangi implications of the quality of Waikato River water, at a time when the contamination of the domestic water supply in Havelock North has hit the headlines.
“The regional council is debating whether the Waikato River must be swimmable all year round because of the treaty, but nobody’s going swimming and eating kai out of the river in a flood, and that’s the only time when the E. [Escherichia] coli is beyond what Europe would call good quality for swimming,” she says.
Europe’s swimming quality standard is 1000 E.coli colony-forming units per 100 millilitres of water.
“It’s time to get a reality check here,” Rowarth says.
“The fact is we’re never going to reach the point of no E. coli in our rivers – ever.”
As for the Havelock North contamination, she ridicules the public perception that it was caused by the intensification of dairying over the past 30 years.
She points out that only 1.7 square kilometres out of a potential 14,111 square kilometres in Hawke’s Bay supports cows, and the local herd of around 50,000 represents less than one percent of the national total.
“The point about water is that the public don’t understand the real issues, and what I’ve tried to explain is what striving for an inspirational goal of purity will do to the economy.
“The extractives industry might take heart from that,” she says.

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