Ben Keet submitted an extensive and professionally expert comment on my recent post on contaminated sites in Hawke’s Bay. His observations are so informative that I am posting them with only slight abridgement below. You can download his entire commentary here.
Ben has worked on remediation of over 4500 contaminated sites projects in ten countries. He has a doctoral degree in hydrogeology and was elected Fellow of the Royal Chemistry Society in 2009. More info on Ben: www.benkeet.com
Here’s Ben’s perspective:
“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 extend that document to include farm tips, offal holes, etc.
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 regarding this subject, with mainly attempts to hide the problem from the public. On the contrary, in Europe and the U.S. 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 appeared 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 U.S. had its ‘Love Canal’, Holland its ‘Lekkerkerk’, and all these first projects were poorly managed by government and led to huge cost blow-outs; however, they resulted in fast tracking of contaminated site legislation. In the EU and U.S. these projects have been front page news for years.
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 have 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 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 focusing 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 …
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 chose to ignore this issue. Instead, it has spent millions to prove its environment was free of toxins. In the 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 poured 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 that had been former orchards or market gardens, known to be potentially contaminated, as it was not certain. Actually, this knowledge is often more certain than 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 ferocity of the protest was often linked more with the resulting measures than with the introduction of the list itself …
The list of HBRC is rather benign – and 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 the future, Council might 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; the current residents also should be informed … 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 wonders: “Are there any uncontaminated properties left?” The answer to this is ‘a lower percentage in New Zealand compared to most industrialised western countries’. This is due to the determined action of their governments to deal with the chemical legacy of the past. Hundreds of thousands of 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 …
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, it 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 NZ will reach the adult stage regarding contaminated sites. Let’s hope we have not lost our ‘Clean and Green Image’ before that has been achieved.”