As It Happens

New Zealand man challenges environment minister to a fist fight over water pollution policy

A New Zealand environmentalist has challenged his country's environment minister to a fist fight over the government's water pollution policy. The loser has to take a dip in a Christchurch swimming hole no longer fit for swimming.
New Zealand Environment Minister Nick Smith will not respond to an environmentalist's fist fight challenge, his spokesperson says. (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Story transcript

A New Zealand environmentalist has challenged his country's environment minister to a fist fight. 

Greg Byrnes, general manager of the Te Kohaka o Tuhaitara conservation trust, issued the challenge to Nick Smith in a newspaper classified ad.

He asked the minister to meet him in Christchurch for a boxing match with "Queensberry Rules." The loser has to "frolic" in a local swimming hole that Byrnes says is no longer fit for swimming.

"I guess it's about being frustrated by how far our politicians seem to be from the common people, which I tend to include myself in," Byrne told As It Happens host Carol Off. "And I work by myself, so I probably have a bit too much time to think."

When is water swimmable?

At the heart of the challenge is the government's new water pollution policy, which aims to classify 90 per cent of the country's rivers and lakes "swimmable" by 2040.

What "swimmable" actually means, however, is a matter of debate.

Critics, Byrnes included, argue the government will reach its target by shifting the goalpost. Under the new policy, water up tp 540 parts E.Coli per 10  millilitres 80 per cent of the time — in which a person has a one 20 chance of picking up an infection — is dubbed swimmable.

The previous measure for deeming water safe to drink and swim in was 260 E coli units per 100 millilitres.

"You can't just change the rules halfway through and then tell us everything's gonna be OK," Byrnes said,

The government has defended its policy, saying the 540 figure is at the low end of the swimmable benchmark, and that new standards are in line with those in the U.S. and Europe.

But Byrnes says you only need to look at the Christchurch swimming hole where Waimakariri river feeds into Otukaikino Creek to see that pollution is rampant. It falls under the category of "swimmable" under the new guidelines, he says. 

"You could probably wade through and I guess if you washed yourself down on the other side, you'll probably be OK, but that standard will now be the new swimmable, which is just craziness," he said. 

Minister rebuffs challenge 

Earlier this month, Smith invited reporters to watch him swim in the Manawatu River, labelled one of the worst polluted in the Western World, in a stunt designed to defend his policy. 

"I don't recall him putting his head under," Byrnes said. "It's a shame someone didn't sort of make the effort and actually hold him under for a wee while, because we might have had a different point of view a week later."

The New Zealand Environment Ministry did not immediately reply to As It Happens' request for comment, but Smith's spokesperson told the Canterbury Star the minister will not be responding to Byrne's challenge.

"Just between you and I and your listeners, it's probably a good thing," Byrnes told Carol Off. "He looks pretty wiry, actually, but maybe push comes to shove, I think I could probably take him."

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