Residents of the Whakatu community, organized as the Whakatu Action Group, have raised a variety of environmental and health concerns involving industry activities in the area. In December, the Hastings Council convened representatives of industries operating in Whakatu to begin a process that should eventuate in three-way dialogue among concerned residents, businesses there, and the Council (together with representatives of the Regional Council and Fire Service).

To support the Whakatu community in this process, BayBuzz is researching potential health and environmental risks posed by chemicals used by Whakatu industries, as well as their discharges to air and water. We are also attempting to determine the rigour and adequacy of local body regulatory oversight and enforcement, and the adequacy of contingency plans should accidents occur that threaten health and safety.

Our intent is not to accuse anyone of wrongdoing. Rather, we are aiming for more transparency and proactive measures to ensure that residents understand their situation fully and can be confident their families are adequately protected.

A recent accidental release of toxic ammonia gas by Cedenco Foods illustrated the kind of risk the community faces.

In addition to local councils, certain key roles and responsibilities for dealing with hazardous materials fall to the Fire Service and to certification and enforcement officers acting on behalf of ERMA (NZ’s Environmental Risk Management Authority).

We wish we could paint a more reassuring picture of the situation. But our researcher, Louis Chambers, is finding robust, clear and consistent information difficult to acquire from local business managers and officials. For example, using outside resources, we have developed individual chemical and effluent profiles of nearly twenty main businesses in Whakatu. We have asked each company to confirm or correct our profiles.

But a typical response (if any) is a curt: “All chemicals are stored to approved standards and local regulations.” Or, after assuring BayBuzz that their business is fully in compliance and we have “neglible understanding” of the matters at hand: “All further communications will be directed through the Community Industry Work Group.”

Whatever environmental, health and safety issues might (or might not) exist in the Whakatu industrial area, clearly there’s a severe shortage of transparency and community relations skills on the part of many of the businesses involved! But if nothing else, we persist at BayBuzz. And soon we’ll report on which businesses are forthcoming with information, and which are not.

Meantime, local body officers we talk to seem only partially informed at best, and share some of the same misgivings, including complaints about secretive ERMA. So far, that agency has ignored requests to even identify the certification and enforcement officers who presumably know what chemicals are where in Whakatu.

We are encouraged that the Fire Service has told us informally that they are aware of the chemical hazards at industrial sites, and can respond appropriately. We’re now trying to get that assurance officially. Perhaps Mayor Yule will ask for some documentation of precisely what the Fire Service knows in advance of the next meeting of the Community Industry Work Group.

As noted above, HDC has met privately with Whakatu industry managers. It’s now time for the residents’ leaders to be invited to the table along with the business interests.

More to come on this one.

Tom Belford

P.S. On a related matter, the Ombudsman has agreed to look into the HB Regional Council’s denial of our official information request for information held by the HBRC regarding toxic waste sites in the region.

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