That’s the motto of the Napier City Council, if the recent experience of NCC’s handling of toxic contamination in Onekawa is any indication. A Napier resident might have thought the Council is supposed to protect their (i.e., the residents’) interests. But it appears that Napier officials are more inclined to protect their own arses.

This story begins back in 2009, when DomPost reporter Marty Sharpe and BayBuzz each made Official Information Act requests of the Regional Council, seeking information newly compiled about sites throughout urban areas of the Bay that might be contaminated with toxic waste.

The Regional Council refused these requests, but they were ultimately confronted by an Ombudsman decision that the information should be made public. The information was officially released in August 2009.

Among other locations, the information indicated possible problems with a neighborhood in Napier’s Onekawa, where a public park and 125 homes had been built over a landfill.

HBRC informed residents of a potential problem by letter in August 2009. Later in the year, HBRC and NCC jointly employed consultants to test in Onekawa Park; these tests showed high levels of contaminants. The Regional Council owned several properties in this neighborhood, and had those tested further in 2010.

Remarkably, the Napier City Council looked at the situation and declared … not a problem, and did nothing more about it through 2009-2010. Doing nothing included NOT telling Napier’s affected homeowners that they might be living, gardening, and playing on top of lead and other toxic wastes.

However, in recent weeks, reporter Sharpe decided to look more closely at the test data. His inquiries to the Regional Council triggered a wave of activity that can only be described as Napier Council bum-covering.

With Sharpe on the prowl, on March 29th, NCC sent a letter to the 125 homeowners, reassuring them that they were in no danger from the contamination.

By this time, HBRC had prepared a ‘communications plan’ for HBRC and NCC Councillors instructing them not to talk to media about the issue! As reported April 2 by the DomPost: “The Onekawa Landfill Communication Plan, seen by The Dominion Post, says ‘councillors are to make no comment’. It also states ‘media contact is to be via the communications team – including media requests for councillor comments’.”

As Sharpe further reported in his April 2nd article: “City council tests conducted in the suburb’s park over a year ago found toxic substances exceeding allowable levels, but the residents were only officially told this week.” And: “Napier City Council chief executive Neil Taylor said ‘at this stage we have not got a plan to do further testing’. He also believed it was preferable to leave the soil undisturbed.

Sharpe wrote an update on the situation on April 5th.

HB Today also wrote on April 5th, quoting a reassuring Mayor Arnott: “’I do not think there is any cause for concern’, she said of reports that some areas of the Onekawa Park area showed toxicity readings that were above accepted standards, indicating that there were no plans to carry out more testing or remedial work.

However, with the DomPost reporting lead levels measured at ten times the existing residential health standard, it appears that the DHB became alarmed at an executive level, with CEO Kevin Snee becoming involved. A meeting of NCC, HBRC and DHB officials, including Snee, was held on April 6th. From the outcome, I infer that DHB pressed NCC that it needed to get its head out of the landfill sand and act more proactively to assess the actual danger to its residents (i.e., conduct test measurements).

In any event, an ‘epiphany’ occurred at NCC.

NCC responded to the meeting by flip-flopping on the issue and sending a second letter on April 7th to the 125 residents, indicating that it would indeed conduct tests to clarify the extent of contamination and any potential danger. As reported April 8th in HB Today: “Napier City Council chief executive Neil Taylor said the council would test private properties on the old landfill after meeting on Wednesday with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council and the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board.”

On Friday April 8th, BayBuzz by email asked Mayor Arnott and each Napier Councillor if they wished to comment on the appropriateness or sufficiency of NCC’s handling of this matter.

As I write on Tuesday April 12, only two Councillors have responded. Apparently the HBRC’s gag order stands for most Councillors. Councillor Tony Jeffrey said: “I believe that the decision to soil test individual properties for contamination after advice was received from the district health authority is most appropriate.” Newly-elected newcomer to the issue, Councillor Michelle Pyke replied: “Not prepared to comment until I have the full information – sorry.”

Onekawa is represented by ward Councillor Keith Price, and of course by all the at-large Councillors who regularly tout the fact that they diligently represent ‘all’ of Napier. It will be interesting to hear what Councillor Price has to say about the matter.

As it stands, the NCC is still saying that it doesn’t know how much testing it will initiate … now over one year after having been informed of the contamination.

So let me ask BayBuzz readers:

  1. Do you believe the affected Onekawa residents have been well-served by the Napier Council in this instance?
  2. Do you think HBRC should have done more to press NCC into action? (That is, beyond preparing a memo instructing Councillors not to comment.)
  3. Do you think the District Health Board – as our putative voice of authority on public health issues – should have weighed in earlier and with a stronger precautionary voice?

I say:

  1. No, they haven’t been. Closing ranks and insisting that “All is well in Napier City” is par for the course at NCC. However, if I represented Onekawa, I’d be pretty ticked off about Council’s determined effort to ignore the problem. I would have gone door-to-door to the 125 homes, explaining the situation and promising that I would do my best to see their properties were tested for contamination, at NCC expense.
  2. Yes, at least from a ‘moral suasion’ standpoint. Other than shining a light on the matter, HBRC’s further authority is unclear. What’s better, a toothless HBRC or none at all?
  3. Yes, the DHB has been too timid, too long, when it comes to standing up to Councils on public health matters. It’s nice to see them rise to this occasion.

Tom Belford

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3 Comments

  1. How many Onekawa citizens voted Cr Price in as their “Ward” councillor at the last election again? Oh yeah – none! By saying or doing nothing about this issue is he giving them their money’s worth?

  2. Apart from Cr Michelle Pyke with Cr Maxine Boag, perhaps Cr Tony Jeffery,”on the fringe” be fair to comment that Napier City Council administration loathes any type of Wards.
    For the right reasons, Wards do strengthen and assist to develop communities, the likes of Onekawa.

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