Our chemical heritage

27/10/2009

When it comes to contaminated sites, the Taranaki Regional Council is on to it, Helen Harvey finds.

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Graphic: AARON WOOD:  TRC Website

Whether it is a long forgotten oil well, a former P lab, or metal spilt on a garage floor by an old bloke pottering around in his shed, the Taranaki Regional Council has a record of it.

The Ombudsman recently ordered Hawke’s Bay Regional Council to make public its list of 3099 potentially contaminated sites.

Environment Minister Nick Smith made it clear he expected other councils to follow suit.

But the Taranaki Regional Council has had a list of contaminated sites, called the Register of Selected Land Uses, available to the public for years. It is now on the council’s website for anyone to look at.

The register has about 1300 sites listed. Most are industrial, but about a third are houses, council environment quality director Gary Bedford says.

According to the council’s State of the Environment Report, which was written when there were 1281 sites, 757 (59 per cent) have been investigated and no contamination was found; 16 sites have been cleaned up, so levels of contamination no longer pose an unacceptable environmental risk; 480 sites contain hazardous substances, but based on current knowledge, the contamination is not at levels that would pose an unacceptable risk, or they are currently being managed so that there is no unacceptable risk to people or the environment.

This includes the former Patea Freezing Works, where there was a major fire in February 2008. The works technically is not a contaminated site, Mr Bedford says, because it has a secure fence around it.

But in order to make the site accessible to the public, it has to be cleaned up, which is happening at the moment.

No sites have been deemed contaminated – found to pose an unacceptable risk. In an Environment New Zealand 2007 report, 10 regions in New Zealand reported information regarding areas of contamination. Taranaki was the only region that reported there were no contaminated sites that hadn’t been cleaned up or were not actively managed.

There are 28 sites on the register that have been classified as being low risk but requiring further investigation. These are mainly old oil wells and former P labs, Mr Bedford says, and won’t get assessed as a matter of course by council.

The council gets notification from the police when a P lab is discovered. When P labs first came to be a problem, the council investigated each site, he says.

“We found in every case was there was no contamination of the property itself, the ground. The buildings are usually contaminated, but they haven’t tipped chemicals out the window or slung it on the grass or under trees.”

So, now, while all P labs are put on the register, the council no longer assesses the sites. It writes to the property owners to inform them of the situation and advise them their property is going on to the register, he says. There is a cost if the owner wants the property assessed.

Like P lab sites, the site of an old oil well is not assessed because it would need to be excavated to find the well.

Five or six years ago, an old oil well burst into life on a property down by the port, Mr Bedford says.

“There was a debate as to who was responsible. The oil wells were drilled in the early 1900s. The companies have long since gone, so no one is prepared to take responsibility.”

The council did an investigation and found a number of old sites, which were put on the register, so potential buyers can find out about wells on the property.

People have all sorts of ideas what contamination on a site means, Mr Bedford says.

“The definition in the Resource Management Act is a site is contaminated if it has contamination above background levels. That’s quite important, because there are geothermal areas around Taupo and Rotorua where there is natural arsenic at high background levels. And it has to pose a risk of adverse effects to the environment or people.”

The sites in the Paritutu area that possibly came into contact with dioxin are treated differently, Mr Bedford says.

“Work done by the Ministry of Health covered the entire suburb. So we thought: Do we get information on every single house in that entire area, bearing in mind that every house was found to be uncontaminated in terms of the standards?”

The council decided the answer was no.

Instead, if there is any inquiry about a property in that area, the council refers the inquirer to the Health Ministry.

Until four or five years ago, there was no legislation in New Zealand dealing with contaminated sites, Mr Bedford says.

Then the Resource Management Act was amended to make regional councils responsible for investigating possible sites and gave district councils the responsibility of managing land use on sites that were contaminated.

But back around 1992, the Environment Ministry issued a desktop report – there were no site visits or site assessments – listing possible contaminated sites around the country. This list is called Hail – Hazardist Activities and Industries List.

“The theory was, if these activities took place on a site, they could pose some risk of causing contamination. So, the list came out and it was a compilation of looking at Yellow Pages and trade directories across the whole of New Zealand, looking at how many of these sites were in each region.”

It identified 8000 sites nationwide.

“Everyone went panic, panic: the world is coming to an end, we’ve got 8000 contaminated sites – which wasn’t the actually case.”

It was a desktop study that said this might be contaminated if contamination is caused by a certain activity.

“We didn’t actually believe there were any [in Taranaki] that were contaminated or we would have known about it by then. If there were 300 sites with gross contamination all over it, we would have heard from someone. So we said to ourselves, we will go and have a look and see what the real story is.”

There were about 300 Taranaki sites on the list, but the council knew there were more sites than that – which had the mentioned activities on them – from its resource consent base, he says.

“We prepared our own list, the Register of Selected Land Uses, and we added the hail activities and added in extra sites we knew about.”

Such as rubbish dumps and sites where there has been a major spillage, a major environmental incident, which involved some sort of chemical that might endure in the soil like a diesel or petrol spill.

Also added to the list were sites the council had given resource consents for, such as Methanex Motonui and Ballance Agri-Nutrients.

The council also managed to find every old rubbish dump in Taranaki – there were about 120 – of which between 20 and 25 were district council landfills. The rest were either vacant sections that neighbours threw their rubbish on to, a corner in the country where people slow down and chuck their rubbish out the window of the car, or vacant industrial sites. All 120 were investigated.

The vast majority of sites were not contaminated.

“There were about 10 sites where we said to the owner: If you carry on like this, we are going to make you get a resource consent. Do you want to carry on, or do you want to clean up? They all said, We’ll clean up.”

And there were a couple of old municipal landfills that still had leachate coming out at such strength they needed a resource consent. Next the council tracked down and investigated old sawmills and timber treatments sites in Taranaki – there were about 45 of those.

By 1996, the council had moved on to to former drycleaning sites, engineering workshops and old gas works.

“Old gas work sites used to use coal and put it through a process to convert the coal to natural gas – coal gas it was called.

“And it left a very tarry residue, a phenol. These phenolic tars are nasty, dreadful chemicals that last a long time and cause cancer.”

Three old gas work sites were found. The one in New Plymouth had been converted into a commercial building, which was a wonderful solution, because the whole site had been sealed, Mr Bedford says.

The site in Hawera was being used as a BMX track and a cartage company was on the site in Eltham.

“We actually talked with South Taranaki District Council and in both cases, we went in and cleaned up the sites ourselves.”

Under New Zealand law, the owners of contaminated sites have to clean up any contamination, even if they haven’t caused it. But it would have been “grossly unfair” to hit a BMX site with a bill for tens of thousands of dollars, he says.

So the council decided that in the interests of the public good, it would clean up the site of the BMX track and the site in Eltham.

The council has also done a couple of clean-ups in conjunction with the New Plymouth District Council, he says.

“For example, there was a retired bloke in the Waitara area who had a garage workshop with a dirt floor. His hobby was engineering, he was a metal worker and so the floor of the garage, after 20 or 30 years, was absolutely thick with copper and brass. It was far in excess of guidelines. The poor bloke died and the widow was left with this garage that was grossly contaminated.”

There was so much copper and brass, someone could have mined the floor, he says.

“In the end, it was easy for us to roll in and dig out the dirt. We threw in a gravel driveway. So the widow was delighted – she got a lovely new driveway out of it. And we had the problem cleaned. We certainly don’t normally do something like that, but taking everything into account, we thought, we’ll use public money to do this.”

By 1998, the council was comfortable there was no major problem with contaminated sites left in Taranaki.

“So, we end up, as of late last year, with 1281 sites. Now there are more than that. Essentially we keep every site we assess on our register, because the information that a site has been assessed is now very valuable.”

The council used to get calls at least once a week from prospective land buyers, lawyers, or property valuation people asking for information on a site, he says.

So the council put the information on its website and anybody can dial up any section, select the selected land use layer and find every site in Taranaki that has been assessed by the council and what the category is.

“It comes down to giving the regional community confidence and certainty.”

27/10/2009 | Daily News | NEWS-2009-M10-27-002 | stuff.co.nz
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