Rotorua diver Joe Te Kowhai is credited by the Environment Court decision with being responsible for influencing the salvors to clean up an additional 4000 tonnes of Rena wreckage at a cost of more than NZ$80 million.
Joe gets a special mention by Judge Jeff Smith in his interim decision on appeal against the earlier Hearings Commissioners’ call to re-open Otaiti Astrolade reef to public access.
Joe, a commercial diver and mechanical engineer, was asked by Te Arawa to inspect the salvage operation on their behalf.
“He freely admits that he started with a suspicious approach, and that from his initial inspections he considered that the site was far short of that which was acceptable,” says Judge Smith’s decision. “We concluded that Mr Te Kowhai’s evidence was both illuminating and honest.”
Joe is credited with noting the scouring being done to the reef by the grapple hook, which resulted in Te Arawa asking for its use to be stopped because it was doing more harm than good.
Joe Te Kowhai at work.
Witnesses evidence suggests Joe advocated for and obtained a significant reduction in the wreck volume – some 4000 tonnes – by advising and working with the salvors until he was satisfied that all that could be done had been done, says the Judge.
“We cannot overemphasise the influence Mr Te Kowhai had on getting Captain King and the owner to extend salvage works on the wreck. Mr Te Kowhai was a forthright and impressive witness, with significant expertise.”
Part of Joe’s statement says: “….the initial steps into getting my point across or our point across, well...to Roger [King] took some time but in saying that eventually, as we worked through the process and both being divers, we both knew how difficult this was going to be so those views came closer and closer together.
“As I expressed them to Roger we began to gel and what we were seeing were the same thing. With Roger he wanted, or the owner of the site wanted it tidied up. I wanted it cleaned and that’s the agreement that we had and we started working towards that so we both had a goal at the end”.
Judge Smith says: “We are in no doubt that the insurer and owner committed significant further funding after 2017 based on Mr Te Kowhai’s input. This yielded significant improvements to the site, with over 4000 tonnes of further material at a cost of over NZ$80m”.
“We note that these concessions by Mr Te Kowhai came at considerable personal cost, and it appears he has been subjected to criticism and pressure from other groups in relation to his actions,” says the Judge.
“Curiously, no witness, including any witness for the appellants, contradicted Mr Te Kowhai’s evidence or vouchsafed his experience in this area. His evidence is entirely consistent with other witnesses for the Applicant, including Captain King who was in charge of the salvage operation.
“Barry Wilkinson, a witness called for the appellants, is a person with considerable experience of fishing the reef and had been the fisherman for Ngati Whakahemo Kaipapa marae at Maketu.
He attended at Otaiti in 2013 and his view then was that it would take three to four years to recover. In cross-examination he confirmed he was extremely pleased to hear that a lot of further work had been done since his visit to ‘clean up the rubbish’.
“From the Court’s perspective these two witnesses fairly acknowledge the significant improvements that had occurred over this site.”