On Monday, the HB Regional Council briefed Marty Sharpe of the Dominion Post and me on actions taken with respect to some 3,099 potentially contaminated sites in Hawke’s Bay and the Council’s plans for releasing information to the public on these sites. We are the parties who successfully appealed to the Ombudsman for such disclosure.
There was good news and bad news in the briefing.
On the good side, the Regional Council has been working to update and validate the original list (formally, the Hazardous Activity and Industry List – HAIL), first compiled in 1995 using sources such as telephone books and business directories. The Council emphasizes, rightly, that the HAIL list has never been considered a verified list.
Lately, because Council was aware the Ombudsman might indeed rule in favour of public disclosure, considerable resources have been devoted to reviewing the list. As a result, the number of sites on the list has been reduced to approximately 2,700, owned by about 1,800 property owners. These property owners are now being notified that their sites are on the list. That process must be completed by the Ombudsman-imposed October 12 deadline for public release of the list.
Conceivably, some property owners will be learning for the first time that their sites might be contaminated. HBRC is gearing up to respond to a flurry of property owner queries, disputes and denials. Obviously, it will be in the interest of property owners to clear up the status of their sites as quickly as possible.
In addition, the HBRC says that in recent years it has been working to remediate the sites deemed most hazardous to the public. These priority sites would include landfills, gas works, timber treatment plant sites, and old petroleum storage sites. Says Resource Management Group Manager Darryl Lew: “We believe that potential public health risks have been well managed.”
As a result of this process, four contaminated sites have been contained (e.g., Roy’s Hill dump, Gas Works); 46 other sites have been remediated and are fit for use; 57 have been “partially investigated”; 131 were found to have contained hazardous materials, but at levels acceptable for industrial purposes (e.g., service stations); and 1,700 have been visited, with verification that hazardous materials were stored, but so far without further investigation.
HBRC officials say that their “triaging” process of identification, investigation and remediation will continue. The pace of this process is strictly a matter of resourcing … which, of course, is a matter of political priorities.
As for the bad news …
First of all, there is the fundamental question of what HBRC does not know. The most glaring blind spot – virtually none of this data relates to farmed land, thanks to Federated Farmers opposition back when the HAIL list was first compiled. So, to the extent the public might be worried about farms, orchards, vineyards etc where chemical use might have been intensive in the past, too bad! There is no information in the HAIL list pertaining to farm tips, fuel storage on farms, sheep dips, pesticides used in orchards, and so forth. In fact, there could be many more dangerous sites in Hawke’s Bay. Effectively, the HAIL list just deals with industrial locations and activities.
The implication? As agricultural lands (e.g., Heretaunga Plains orchards) are converted into sports parks or sub-divided for residential use, Ministry of Environment regulations require that the soils be tested for contaminants, and remediated before passing into other use. This process is overseen by the territorial authorities – e.g., the Hastings and Napier Councils. How diligently they perform this oversight is an open question we will pursue!
Second, even with respect to industrial sites, HBRC jurisdiction reaches only to the matter of whether a site might be discharging a dangerous substance into the air or water. The mere presence of such material on a site, or in the soil, is not necessarily of concern to HBRC. In the former case, ERMA is the agency charged with maintaining a register of hazardous materials on work sites and ensuring that they are properly managed. Unless ERMA were to inform the Regional Council that a site might be problematic (or worth monitoring), there is no way HBRC would know of any potential discharge. A classic Catch-22.
Third, responsibility for clean-up lies in the hands of the property owner. If today’s property owner finds himself sitting on a contaminated site, it is his responsibility to safely contain or remove the material. It’s a “buyer beware” situation. Of course, this will become sticky in the case of Hastings property owners, given that since the HAIL list was compiled in 1995, the Hastings Council (unlike Napier) has never placed the pertinent information on its LIM reports. How was a property buyer to know of the potential risk or liability?
Fourth, what is considered risky or hazardous in the first place? Only now is the Ministry for the Environment developing a definitive classification of hazardous materials to guide local monitoring and policing efforts.
Fifth, where is the Regional Council actually placing its priority? The tenor of today’s briefing is that the HBRC is firstly concerned with property owners, their sensitivities (and potential land values), as opposed to the broader public and its right to know about the risks that might exist.
In a supreme irony, the Regional Council met in closed session on Friday to decide whether to comply with the Ombudsman’s instruction to release the information to the public! The reason given by HBRC leaders: they would necessarily be discussing individual property owners. Nonsense! The discussion should have been one of principles, sanitised of information that might identify an individual site or property owner if need be.
Going forward, if the HBRC persists in seeing itself as working for the 1,800 property owners, as opposed to championing the broad public interest, it will be making a very unfortunate political miscalculation.
We were reassured today that the Regional Council, to demonstrate that it is “on the case”, will before October 12 identify its highest priority sites for further investigation and, if needed, remediation — a “Top 20” list, if you will.
We eagerly await that reassurance, as well as:
- evidence (in terms of applied resources) of the priority with which the HBRC is now approaching the matter;
- the public release of the full, updated, cleaned list of sites no later than October 12;
- the response of affected property owners;
- an indication of what – if anything – the HBRC proposes to do about agricultural sites;
- an explanation of why the Hastings Council has ducked its responsibility to this point by not indicating potential contamination on its LIM reports.
In short, the story is far from over.