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.

Tom Belford

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1 Comment

  1. I compliment you on your efforts since late last year and the clear and concise article on the contaminated sites issues in Hawke's Bay.

    I agree with your comments regarding the limited scope of the Hail list. For the Ministry for the Environment I have edited the chapters on investigation, remediation and management of sheep-dip sites in the Guideline for Local Authorities and have found similar reluctance to extent that document to include farm tips, offal holes, etc. As you note in your article there are positives and negatives. However let’s start with a brief historic overview.

    At the symposium on 'Financial Risks and Opportunities of Contaminated Land' which I organised and co-chaired in 2008 in Napier I presented a list of potential contaminated hot-spots in New Zealand. Well over 2 million sites were listed. Many agricultural, however; potentially even more residential sites.

    Despite the short lived interest in contaminated land and groundwater pre-RMA during 1987 – 1990, New Zealand has lived an ostrich policy live regarding this subject with mainly attempts to hide the problem from the public. On the contrary in Europe and the US, governments have been very upfront stating 'in the past we didn't know; now we do, let's work towards a solution’.

    Contaminated site issues have been political since they first appearance in the mid seventies. Most countries who have dealt with this issue have gone through turbulent times during the early years and almost all have made serious (and similar) mistakes. Just like Mapua in NZ, the US had its ‘Love Canal’, Holland its ‘Lekkerkerk’, and all these first projects were poorly managed by government, led to huge cost blow-outs, however resulted in fast tracking of contaminated site legislation. In the EU and US these projects have been front page news for years.

    Even though Mapua remediation was started in 2003 and completed (with disputable results) in 2008, New Zealand’s contaminated sites legislation is mainly a topic discussed behind closed doors. Current efforts to formulate a ‘National Standard’ on maximum allowable contamination levels, has been watered down to only look at human health. The national legislation in 30 or more industrialised countries of which New Zealand likes to see itself as an equal partner, have focused on both the threats of contaminants to the environment as well as humans. ‘Clean and Green’ New Zealand seems to think it may get away with just focussing on the human health aspects. There is a very good reason for this: Humans can stand contamination far better than the creatures that make up our environment. Most humans buy their food at the supermarket; this is quite different for earthworms and insects. Some ‘kiwi’s’ may think “does this really matter?”; well, considering that these creepy crawlies make up the food for our national treasure ‘The Kiwi’, it should. The process, which quite likely is poisoning our Kiwi’s (the feathered and the non-feathered variety alike), is called bio-accumulation. In the feathered variety we count the numbers of dead birds; with the non-feathered variety we list the percentage of allergy sufferers. The process is simple: add enough toxins to an environment and eventually all creatures will get their fair share of it, some die others get sick.

    The relationship between historic contamination and general ecological and public health has been understood in the western world for well over 30 years. In 1990 when introducing the RMA New Zealand has chosen to ignore this issue. Instead it has spent millions to prove (to who?) its environment was free of toxins. In future the multiple studies and reports on the low level of dioxin levels in the average New Zealander will be cited as a ‘classic’ example of New Zealand’s ostrich politics: Most funding was generated to prove to the rest of the world dioxins were ‘virtually absent’ from the New Zealand environment. When the government finally had to agree the Agent Orange pored over Vietnam was produced in New Plymouth, the issue was quickly subdued, to the point that the average New Zealander on the street today would still be largely unaware of the poisons produced for that war in New Zealand and its effects of the population of New Plymouth. 2,4,5T and 2,4D are closely related, and many New Zealand farmers have sprayed these chemicals for years, believing they would not have serious health effects.

    So where does this leave us regarding a register of potentially contaminated sites? The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council has to be commended for taking the initiative to create such a register. Clearly a more direct approach, adding a note to the LIM report of each site was banned from use after the Auckland Regional Council was ordered by the Minister for the Environment to remove the statement ‘potentially contaminated’ from the LIM reports of properties which had been former orchards or market gardens, known to be potentially contaminated, as it was not certain. Actually this knowledge is often more certain then the information about possible flooding of a property. Despite this the statement ‘liable to flooding’ can be found on many LIM reports.

    Is New Zealand and Hawke’s Bay in particular unique in having a contaminated sites register? No, most western countries have such registers and often these are on more or less public databases. The introduction has always created some form of protest. The veracity of the protest was often linked more with the resulting measures than with the introduction of the list itself. Belgium is a good example where the introduction of a list, based on current and historic HAIL assessment was combined with the obligation for the owners of the properties to deposit a bond with the government of a size which would cover potential remediation costs. Property owners had to come up with millions of Euro’s often leaving the properties with a negative value. The bond was payable within 3 years of introduction of the list. To avoid the bond, a property owner could produce an investigation report proving the property was free of contamination, or that the contamination had been successfully remediated. To avoid production of reports by befriended consultants, reports were peer-reviewed by randomly selected consultants. This was later replaced by an accreditation system with random checks by the national environmental institute (OVAM).

    Compared to this the list of HBRC is rather benign and indeed as mentioned in the Baybuzz article rather incomplete. The reduction of number of sites on the list as a first reaction of HBRC is a typical New Zealand response. The absence of any national legislation on historically contaminated soil and groundwater does not help HBRC. However they should stand by their initiative and only when a property has been thoroughly investigated should it be taken of the ‘potentially contaminated’ site list. In future they may well be liable for contamination found on properties which are crossed off from the list, or which have been neglected to be placed on the list. A case in point are indeed the thousands of properties with sheep-dips, farm-fuel storage, farm tips and other waste burial and burning areas, orchards, glass houses and market gardens with special focus on the sprayer filling areas, often close to wellbores.

    Residential properties should not be excluded. Not only the future buyer should be made aware, also the current residents should be informed. This duty or care is the responsibility of a Regional Council. ARC did make a commendable attempt in 2004, however being located on a former orchard or market garden is not the only source of contamination on residential properties. Lead paint was phased out in New Zealand later than in most western countries. Around many older (pre-1980) houses will be a zone with elevated lead levels. Tens of thousands of ‘real kiwi’s’ had a perforated old oil drum as waste incinerator in their back yard. In and around this area a multitude of contaminants will most likely be present. Enthusiastic home gardeners often applied more herbicides and insecticides than commercial orchardists and market gardeners; as a result the old veggie plots contain often higher concentrations than found on commercial properties. Corrosion from zinc roofs and sheds, leaching of copper, chromium and arsenic from tanalised fences and other garden structures plus the ashes from the fire in which often treated wood is burned add to the chemical cocktail in a typical kiwi backyard.

    Considering the above one wanders “are there any uncontaminated properties left?” The answer to this is ‘a lower percentage in New Zealand compared to most industrialised western countries’. This due to the determined action of their governments to deal with the chemical legacy of the past. Hundreds of thousands properties, industrial, commercial, agricultural and residential properties have been remediated in those countries. New Zealand lags well over 20 years behind. The idea that if you don’t think about it the problem goes away prevails. No records are kept; many councils don’t even know where former public landfill sites are located. A benign paddock may contain thousands of tonnes of highly toxic waste, as is the case in the project I’m working on at present.

    So again the initiative of Hawke’s Bay Regional Council is to be commended. In comparison the Wellington Regional Council should have a serious internal review when its list contains only 50 sites. Will they take responsibility for contamination on sites not on the list? One brief trip through Seaview, Gracefield or along Hutt Road will learn the fallacy of such a small number of potentially contaminated sites in the Greater Wellington Region.

    In conclusion New Zealand’s contaminated land policies are still in a juvenile stage. In some regions, Auckland, Waikato and Canterbury some attempts are made to move to the adolescence stage. Hawke’s Bay has joined the group and not without the growing pains this stage brings. National government remains in a state of denial, however has mandated the Regional Councils to look after our environment. This they do better than central government and we, the public, should commend our Regional Councils for that. It will be many years before New Zealand will reach the adult age regarding contaminated sites. Let’s hope we have not lost our ‘Clean and Green Image’ before that has been achieved.

    © Ben Keet 2009

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