Agent Orange: We Buried it under New Plymouth

Investigate Jan/Feb 2001]


Agent orange being sprayed over Vietnam 1970

 As Investigate closes in on New Zealand’s biggest-ever toxic waste scandal, we now have hard evidence that a deadly herbicide used in the Vietnam War is buried under part of New Plymouth city: Ian Wishart and Simon Jones provide team coverage:

An aerial view of the Ivon Watkins Dow factory and land that is now adjacent housing subdivision, taken in 1967 from company’s annual report

A former top official at New Plymouth’s Ivon Watkins Dow chemical factory has confirmed the worst fears of residents – part of the town may be sitting on a secret toxic waste dump containing the deadly Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange.

The official, who has proven his identity and executive ranking in documents provided to Investigates, says the company owned a large piece of land “very close to the chemical plant, which we called ‘the Experimental Farm’. We bulldozed big pits and dumped thousands of tonnes of chemicals there.”

And what did the chemical cocktail include?

“There have been rumours circulating for some time, never proven, that IWD was supplying the defoliant Agent Orange to be used in the Vietnam War. The allegation is true. I was on the management committee of Ivon Watkins Dow, and I supported the plan to export Agent Orange. In fact, it went ahead on my casting vote.

“People who’d served in the armed forces made a strong case for the need to defoliate the jungle, because of the risk to servicemen from ambush or sniper fire from the undergrowth.

“So we began manufacturing this Agent Orange, but it didn’t meet the international specifications and probably had an excess of ‘nasties’ in it. The problem was, we didn’t consider the product was harmful to humans at the time.

“Our scientists relied on assurances and technical data provided to them by Dow Chemicals in the USA. We were led to believe it was safe. The whole reason I supported Agent Orange is because we thought we were giving our boys on the ground a hand.

“To avoid detection, we shipped the Agent Orange to South America – Mexico if I recall correctly – and it was onshipped to its final destination from there.”

The former IWD boss’ confessions will come as a bombshell – not just to the company which for more than 30 years has managed to avoid admitting to it, but also to the credibility of the last Labour Government, which arranged a Parliamentary Select Committee Inquiry in 1990 into the matter.


Part of New Plymouth’s district plan for the area in 1977, to be compared with the 1967 photo on the opposite page. The chemical factory’s grid testing area – seen clearly in the picture opposite – begins in the blank space in the lower left corner of the district plan, and the factory itself extends beyond the lower border of the image. Areas of black fill or hatched fill on the image correspond to areas residents suspect are contaminated.

That Inquiry’s findings were that “No conclusive facts or evidence were provided to the Committee to substantiate the claim that IWD manufactured the formation of Agent Orange in New Zealand during the Vietnam War.”

At the time, the Select Committee’s terms of reference were attacked as being too narrow, and the Labour dominated committee did not call any former executives of Ivon Watkins Dow to give evidence. It is now easy to see why.

“Agent Orange was made from two chemicals,” our source explained in an exclusive interview, “2,4-D and 2,4,5,T. When they’re apart, they’re herbicides. Mixed together, they become Agent Orange. Now at this time, in the late 1960s and early seventies, the Government had given IWD the exclusive licence to manufacture those chemicals. We made all of the 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T that was produced in New Zealand. No one else was allowed to. Technically, we shipped the chemicals unmixed, so technically they weren’t Agent Orange until somebody mixed them at the final destination.”

IWD’s role in manufacturing the deadly herbicide resulted from a US approach to the New Zealand Government, and the Defence Ministry had sounded out whether IWD could provide 500,000 gallons of it, quickly. Although news of the plan later leaked out, the National Government tried to distance itself and the impression was left that the Agent Orange deal never went ahead.

 ao-dumped-04aThe IWD plant in 1967. Much of the pasture toward the middle and top of the picture was used for housing in the 1970s. The smaller circle shows an area subsequently built on where homeowners saw “foamy liquid” bubbling from the ground, but were told “not to worry” by IWD. The larger circle is an area subsequently filled in for housing purposes, now suspected to contain Agent Orange and where residents have dug up 44 gallon drums of chemicals in their gardens. Areas of ground discolouration may indicate the presence of chemicals.

Given that official US reports record that around 9 million gallons of Agent Orange were dumped on Vietnam, the size of the NZ contract was reasonably substantial.

The official’s evidence is likely to open the way for New Zealand Vietnam Veterans to sue both Dow Agrosciences, which now operates the IWD plant, and the New Zealand Government for compensation. Vietnam veterans and their families have, in many cases, suffered major health problems and birth defects as a result of alleged exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, but up until now there’s been no proof that IWD was definitely involved.

The revelations get worse, however. The official says leftover Agent Orange chemicals, complete with “excess nasties” were re-worked into the 2,4,5-T herbicide for use on farms within New Zealand, and surplus chemicals were dumped at the Experimental Farm, which is now believed to lie underneath the New Plymouth suburb of Paritutu.

Which may explain why the suburb has the highest levels of the deadly chemical dioxin – an ingredient of Agent Orange – ever recorded in a New Zealand urban area, according to a Ministry for the Environment report in 1998. If the official’s testimony is correct, it is highly likely that leachate from 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T dumped in the ground would eventually mix – assuming they hadn’t been tossed in to the same pit together already -creating a lethal Agent Orange mix under the soil.


L to R: Earle Barnes, Dow USA director of corporate manufacturing; Herbert Doan, Dow USA President; and Dan Watkins, IWD managing director. Doan and Barnes certainly knew how deadly their chemicals were. Watkins probably knew.

“I remember at one meeting,” says the former IWD top executive, “that there was some real concern expressed about the chemical dump. ‘If it leaches down onto the beach, we’re going to be in real trouble’,” one IWD scientist had warned. The dumping operation was described by our source as “surreptitious”.

And if any further proof were needed that surplus Agent Orange had been dumped at New Plymouth, local residents found a drum of the chemical on the beach near Waireka Stream.

But a local newspaper report in the mid-seventies sheds more light on the situation:

“Drums of chemical waste buried under Ivon Watkins Dow Ltd’s proposed housing subdivision are not considered a hazard by its management,” the Taranaki Herald newspaper begins.

“The Managing Director, Mr R M Bellen, confirmed that drums of waste had been buried in the land, but said none of the material was dioxin and all was expected to degrade in the ground without any harmful effects.

“They were also buried in a remote part of the proposed subdivision where they would not cause problems to development.

“The existence of the drums was brought to the public’s attention by a letter to the editor of the Herald, signed by ‘Concerned’. He said large quantities of drums containing chemicals were buried in trenches over a period of years. Five years ago [1972] one of the Taranaki newspapers ran a picture of the work in progress.

“ ‘By now the soil will be contaminated and the fitting of underground services will further spread the chemicals,’ he said. ‘Dioxin and other unwanted chemicals are now destroyed in an incinerator. About 12 years ago IWD dumped drums of chemicals in the city dump. The chemical seeped into the Mangaetuku Stream and the city council spent days collecting the dead eels and burying them’.”

The chemicals being dumped in 1972, after the US decided to stop using Agent Orange in Vietnam, were highly likely to have been Agent Orange or its ingredients. Having boosted production to meet the US orders, IWD was left with tens of thousands of gallons of the deadly poison.

And there’s documentary evidence to support the claims by the former IWD boss that Agent Orange, complete with some of the most lethal toxins known to man, was reworked into ordinary farm herbicides for use within New Zealand.

A 1987 Ministry of Agriculture report notes the use of a “scrub dessicant” on our farms, made up in equal measure by combining 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. In other words: Agent Orange.

Our executive source’s wife also recalls the “hush hush” nature of the Agent Orange programme: “My husband came home one night when all the fuss was going on about Agent Orange, and I remember him saying to me ‘We must never breathe a word of this to anyone. No one must ever find out’.” 


Time, and a realisation that the chemical was more deadly than he or his colleagues at IWD realised, have changed his opinion. “It is time for the truth to emerge. Something needs to be done,” he says.

Investigate approached Health Minister Annette King who has so far proved reluctant to dig into the matter, and asked if she would be prepared to consider granting the former official immunity if he testified at a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the matter. So far, the Minister has failed to respond.

At stake for the government could be massive compensation payments: these are the same herbicides used on most farms throughout New Zealand, chemicals which may explain a sudden explosion in birth defects and chronic illnesses in children and adults from the 1960s onward. The cost in health bills to the country over the past 30 years may far exceed what the Government spends on tobacco related illnesses or car crashes, which may also explain the expensive TV advertising campaigns -a distraction fropm the bigger issue.

The former IWD boss says he and his colleagues all had shareholdings in the company, something he believes was an effective means of buying silence and loyalty.

Among the documents provided by the official is a copy of IWD’s 1967 Annual Report, which discloses that the company purchased 400 acres of land to use for experimenting with herbicides and pesticides. This included a 300 acre dairy farm stretching south from the main chemical factory, a 90 acre “research farm” at Waireka Stream, and a 12 acre research farm at Junction Rd in New Plymouth. This was in addition to the 29 acres that the factory originally sat on in Paritutu.

“Possession of the new research station,” wrote IWD Managing Director Dan Watkins in his report to shareholders in 1967, “and the developed area at Junction Rd, as well as the 300 acre Beach Road Dairy Farm helps materially in keeping us close to all types of farming and to all means of production from the soil. Thus we are able to evaluate critically new methods of pasture and crop protection with insecticides and weed control with herbicides, as well as means of raising production by the use of fertilisers.”

But while Prime Minister Helen Clark’s colonial government continues to duck for cover, it’s been revealed dying Vietnam War veterans are threatening to “do a Timothy McVeigh” – a reference to the American anti-government protestor allegedly responsible for blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City several years ago.

Vietnam Veterans Association chief, John Moller, says

passions are running so high that he and his colleagues have had to work “damned hard” recently to persuade dying veterans whose children have also been affected by dioxin-related deformities, “not to take the law into their own hands. These guys have had enough. They’re being cheated and lied to by the politicians and the bureaucrats.”

US health authorities have recently added diabetes to the list of diseases caused by dioxin, and Moller points out that the massive rate of diabetes in the Maori community may be a direct result of exposure to the 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T herbicides.

“Go back two or three decades and a lot of Maori people were working outside, as farmhands, labourers, railway workers, soldiers, forestry workers -all of them in areas where they came into contact with chemicals containing dioxin.”

And the point about dioxin is that it doesn’t just affect the person originally exposed, it affects their children through several generations as well.

There is evidence, still being collated by Investigate, of politicians having financial links to chemical manufacturers in the past, which may also be a factor in why successive governments have either been reluctant to investigate, or they’ve set up dodgy, Yes Minister type inquiries designed to prolong the cover-up.


Andrew Gibbs Photo by: Pip Guthrie


The chemical plant as it is today. The factory has been extended towards the town. Photo by: Pip Guthrie

Meanwhile, environmental campaigner and Paritutu resident Andrew Gibbs, whose investigations brought the disaster to light, is researching the involvement of Broadbank Corporation as the developer of Paritutu subdivision, and whether it knew or should have known it was building houses on a toxic dump. Broadbank was managed at the time by Don Brash, the man who is now Governor of the Reserve Bank.


Original Story w/pictures: pdf



One Comment

  1. As I understand it, dioxin is not created by the mixing of the two major components – it is generated during the cheap and nasty manufacture of the base chemicals. In other words, they do not need to be mixed to create a toxic threat to Paritutu. It has been real for years.

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