The Regional Council, supposedly the body charged with ensuring us a healthy environment, has decided instead its paramount job is to protect property values.

And so it has declined our BayBuzz Information Act request for release of information pertaining to 3,000 sites throughout the Bay potentially contaminated by toxic waste. While the Council is mightily concerned about “commercial sensitivity,” nowhere in their rejection letter do they even mention — let alone profess to weigh — potential risks to public health, or ecosystem health, or the public’s countervailing right to know about such risk situations.

The net result? If I want to buy a particular property that happens to be listed, the Council feels obliged to reveal the potential risk. But if I happen to live next door, or in the neighborhood of such a property, or my kids play on or around it, then I have no right, as the Regional Council sees it, to know the danger.

Sound far-fetched? It’s not.

It’s precisely the situation faced by residents of Waikoau (north of Napier), who discovered that an abandoned timber mill site in their village was contaminated with arsenic and PCP … the residue of operations from 1967 to the early 80s. In this case, a company memo (from owner Carter Holt Harvey) reporting contamination levels far above safe limits was provided, three years after it was written, to HBRC and just released in August … and only after the Ministry of Environment publicised a list of such sites.

Now the Regional Council and Carter Holt Harvey are scurrying around reassuring the community that they have everything under control. Yeah right! Neither is going to win any public service award on this one.

The Council is probably correct that only some of the 3,000 sites are actually contaminated. But are there likely to be 1,000 that are? 300? 30? 3? How many situations like the one in Waikoau are there in Hawke’s Bay … and exactly when will we know?

HBRC doesn’t even furnish an answer to that question. As their letter to BayBuzz says: “There is an ongoing process of getting further information and conducting investigations of these sites and there is a need to preserve a free flow of information during the investigation process. Many site owners have given information on a confidential basis to facilitate the informal transfer through to investigation phase.”

In layperson terms: “They’re covering their arses, and we’re covering ours.”

After all, there could e a lot of clean-up money involved. Saturday’s DomPost reported that the Environment Court, finding that a Waikato meat-processing firm had buried a “ticking time bomb” of banned toxic chemicals on its property, ordered fines of $150,000 … believed to be the highest fine levied under the RMA. And it could cost the company more still to remove the waste.

These are the kinds of problems local councils would just like to pretend don’t exist … or wish away.

Not good enough. The public has as many rights as property owners like Carter Holt Harvey. It’s not the job of the Regional Council to make things comfortable for companies that fail to disclose they have in their soil 66 times the safe level of arsenic and 175 times the safe level of PCP.

BayBuzz will be appealing this denial of information to the Ombudsman.


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