August 1, 2008

A Costly Clean-Up’s Flaws Uncovered

It was supposed to take 18 months and to cost $6.5 million. It lasted three years and soaked up $12 million - and now Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright says the much cheaper containment option would have been a better way to go. The drawn- out, disruptive and hugely expensive clean-up of the Fruitgrowers Chemical Company site at Mapua - tagged as New Zealand's most contaminated chemical site - could have been done much more quickly and at a fraction of the cost, she says, by capping the site to seal it and prevent its myriad pollutants from getting into the surrounding waters.

Dr Wright doesn't say so, but the ratepayers of the Tasman district, and taxpayers who put up the bulk of the $12 million, could almost claim to have been gypped. Remediation, the process of digging up and cleansing the soil with technology previously untried on this scale in this country, did do the job, but not completely, and it probably led to dioxins and other nasty toxins being discharged into the atmosphere, posing a health risk to workers and nearby residents. This project was at best, a qualified success, at worst, a flawed, inadequately- managed effort resulting from poor decision-making.

The good news in Dr Wright's report, released yesterday, is that the sprawling site, so close to housing, restaurants and tourism businesses and an important coastal estuary, is now stable and presents no immediate risk to residents. Most of the pesticides accumulated in the soil over 50 years of on-site manufacturing have been destroyed, paving the way for the combination of public, residential and commercial development that the Tasman District Council wants. But there is sufficient risk of residual mercury contamination for Dr Wright to recommend that further soil sampling be done before any houses are built, and there is still groundwater contamination that has the potential to affect both well water and marine life in the estuary. If Mapua residents and the Tasman District Council were hoping for a report clearing the clean-up of any residual worries, they have had a nasty surprise.

The saga is not over. This report, which contains some damning conclusions about aspects of the performance of various parties involved in the clean-up, including the Ministry for the Environment and the council, is not the last word. The commissioner is to release a second report later in the year, once final clean-up data is gleaned from the ministry. Of equal interest to many, especially Mapua residents, will be reports from the health and labour ministries on the health effects of the project, also due before the end of the year.

It is to be hoped that they will offer reassurance that the recorded mistakes made during this complex and long- running work do not continue to threaten residents. To a large extent, this was an experimental project, championed by the Government, and Dr Wright has left no doubt that the decision to go ahead was questionable, a high-risk strategy in the middle of a residential area and beside a sensitive estuary. The original containment plan, approved in 1997, involved sealing the site with a clay or asphalt cap at a cost of $2.75 million. Dr Wright says it had much to commend it. Remediation sounded better. It would have been, but its success depended on a performance level that wasn't always met.

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