EPA boss grilled at select committee over resignation of chief scientist

EPA chief executive Dr Allan Freeth appears before the Environment Select Committee. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The chief executive of the Environmental Protection Authority was given a grilling by politicians over accusations of ministerial involvement in the resignation of the crown entity's chief scientist.

Dr Allan Freeth reappeared before the Environment Select Committee in order to clarify whether he had spoken to Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage about her concerns over the performance of Jacqueline Rowarth.

In February Freeth told MPs he had not had any discussions with Sage but the waters were muddied when Sage told Parliament earlier this month that she had met with Freeth and discussed Rowarth.

Just before Freeth’s reappearance on Thursday, Sage told RNZ that she had been mistaken and her memory had failed her.

“I was relying on my memory, and when we checked it was actually a meeting with the Ministry for the Environment - not with the EPA, so when I raised that (Dr Rowarth’s behaviour) it was with the chief executive of the MfE.”

Despite this Freeth faced a barrage of intense questioning from National MPs on the committee including Scott Simpson, Sarah Dowie and former Environment Minister Nick Smith.

Dowie’s questioning centred on a media article critical of Rowarth which was sent to the Minister’s office by a member of the public and then forwarded to Freeth with the subject line: ‘What gives with the chief scientist of the EPA? Great article’.

“How could it be appropriate for the Minister and Ministry to consciously send or forward an email highly critical of the chief scientist with the subject line 'what gives with the EPA chief scientist, great article,' to your independent agency without it being code for get rid of her?” Dowie asked.

Freeth replied that it was entirely appropriate for Ministers to send him information that could bring the EPA into disrepute and he did not connect the email with her personal views.

“I have to say my emails over the last year have been clogged with highly critical media comments or statements about Jacqueline Rowarth and her views.”

Smith was particularly aggressive in his questioning, with heated exchanges with Freeth leading to committee chair Deborah Russell telling them to tone things down.

Asked repeatedly whether he had discussions with either Sage or Environment Minister David Parker about Rowarth, Freeth said he had only offered to update them about the science behind her views and would not discuss employment matters, including when Rowarth had been asked to resign and the size of her compensation package.

“What I can say is from the moment of Jacqueline's appointment to the EPA she came under intense, sustained, vicious social media attack and public attack and had been unhappy for many months,” he said.

Despite its testy nature, the hearing came to an amusing end when Smith told Freeth that it was his impression he had not binned any emails from him during his time as Minister like he said he had done with the article from Sage.

“You’re not sure of that,” quipped Freeth.