The quest to free Southland residents from a toxic liability

It’s been a battle beset by fear, floods and corporate negligence. But will big business finally take responsibility for the toxic waste dumped around Southland?

The Paper Mill is part of Frame, a series of short, standalone documentaries produced by Wrestler for The Spinoff. Made with support from NZ On Air. Watch more here.

It arrived under the cover of nightfall in 2014: thousands of tonnes of hazardous chemical sludge surreptitiously trucked in and stored in the old Mataura Paper Mill. There it sat for the next five years, casting a long and menacing shadow over the small Southland town.

At first these nighttime deliveries were a mystery to local residents and authorities. But eventually they figured out the material – known as ouvea premix – had come from Tiwai Point aluminium smelter near Bluff, over 70 kilometres away.

Why it was being brought to Mataura was anyone’s guess – the town had no connection to the smelter. By the time the local council’s regulatory officials began to get involved, 10,000 one-tonne bags had already been stored in the mill.

“Mataura, up until that point in time, had no connection with the smelter and rightly felt aggrieved that it had been used as a dumping ground,” says Steve Parry of the Gore District Council.

While the origin of the ouvea premix was Tiwai Point, it had been brought to Mataura by a middleman: Taha Asia Pacific, a Bahrain-based fertiliser company, which had purchased a waste by-product of aluminium smelting called dross from the smelter. The aim was to recover the aluminium and turn the rest into mineral fertiliser, but instead Taha stored the waste in Mataura and other areas of Southland without consent. While the Gore District Council granted the company retrospective consent provided it pay a bond of $2.3m to help with eventual removal costs, Taha appealed to the Environment Court and didn’t end up paying anything.

But the main reason why the material was such a concern to Mataura in particular was the threat it posed to the local population and environment. Ouvea premix is a class six hazardous substance. It’s toxic to both human health and aquatic life, and when wet, releases noxious ammonia gas. Because the old mill sits precariously on the edge of the Mataura River, locals were naturally thrown into a state of perpetual anxiety and baffled as to why the material would be stored there in the first place.

MATAURA

THE MATAURA PAPER MILL ON THE BANKS OF THE MATAURA RIVER (PHOTO: DIANNE MANSON/GETTY IMAGES)

“Well, the Mataura Mill is the last place that anybody would have ever thought of putting it, so close to the river,” says Mataura resident and Sort Out the Dross spokeswoman Laurel Turnbull. “Words fail me, really – where their brains were, these people.

“Locals are angry. It doesn’t give you any confidence in the people who are supposed to be looking after us. They just don’t seem to care. I think these big businesses have no heart really, no heart.”

Sort out the Dross spokeswoman Laurel Turnbull (Screenshot: The Paper Mill)

Laidlaw’s dross

While Mataura was coming to grips with it’s unwelcome baggage, it was discovered that Taha Asia Pacific had been dumping its dross illegally in the other parts of Southland: at the quarry near Edendale and on deer farmer Graham Laidlaw’s farm in Greenhills, not far from the smelter itself.

Laidlaw says he agreed to use the dross on his farm roads after Taha pitched it as a safe trial product that had been given approval by Environment Southland (Southland Regional Council). But a year later, when two workers from the Edendale quarry became sick, Laidlaw realised the harmful nature of the product that had been put on his roads and attempted to have it removed.

“I felt sick. I was dealing with it, my staff were dealing with it, my family and my stock,” he says. “Why would they give out a product that’s going to harm? We just don’t do that down here in Southland.”

While Taha was prosecuted by Environment Southland for unlawfully discharging contaminants at the Edendale quarry and on Laidlaw’s land, the company was not ordered to collect the dross from the farm’s roads. Laidlaw approached Environment Southland for help, but was effectively told he was on his own and would need to take separate legal action to get the material removed.

“You rang them and asked for help. They just [say] ‘not my problem, it’s yours. Sort it.’

“There’s no guts in it. It’s just delay, delay, delay. And they just won’t do anything about it.”

Graham Laidlaw

Graham Laidlaw (Screenshot : The Paper Mill)

Searching for help elsewhere, Laidlaw approached former Labour Party candidate for Clutha-Southland Cherie Chapman, who began investigating the issue. She made the link between Laidlaw’s predicament and the ouvea premix stored in Mataura and Invercargill, and realised that little was being done by local authorities to hold anyone accountable or appreciate the seriousness of the situation.

“When I went first to Environment Southland, Gore District Council, politicians, the smelter, they all said not my problem, not my problem. It’s theirs. It’s theirs. It’s theirs. They pass the buck like there’s no tomorrow.”

“The whole thing was swept under the carpet,” she says. “And this has been a constant theme throughout my campaign… things are swept under the carpet. We’re told we’re causing trouble. We’re told that we don’t have the facts.”

Although the toxic nature of the ouvea premix and the dross was public knowledge by this point, Chapman says the inaction was the result of the formidable regional influence of New Zealand Aluminium Smelters or Tiwai Point – majority owned by multinational mining giant Rio Tinto.

“I think it’s an incredibly high risk to take on a company such as Rio Tinto, end of story,” Chapman says. “NZAS is a sponsor of Environment Southland. So they’re [Environment Southland] not going to bite the hand that feeds them.

“And that’s one of the big issues is such conflict of interest. Environment Southland should not be sponsored by the smelter – one of the major polluters in the area.”

Vin Smith, former director of policy and planning for Environment Southland, concedes that while NZAS sponsors the council’s environment awards, there is no conflict of interest.

“Their performance, if you look at our compliance monitoring report, is very, very good.”

“These issues are quite separate and quite disparate.”

As for Laidlaw, Smith concedes he is undoubtedly a victim but says there needed to be more due diligence before the dross was used on the farm in the first place.

In 2016, without the support of Environment Southland, Graham Laidlaw lodged his own case against Taha in the High Court, at a cost of almost $100,000, he says. However, Taha went into liquidation that same year, effectively leaving Laidlaw stuck with the tonnes of dross spread out over his farm.

“I was left in a hard place. Basically no one wanted to help me. So then I just had enough.”

On a Saturday morning, Laidlaw and his staff used a digger and some trucks to dig up a lane and haul roughly half the farm’s dross back to Taha. He was subsequently charged with possible discharge to land and water by Invercargill City Council.

Ouvea premix abandoned

Taha’s liquidation in 2016 invariably meant there was even more uncertainty about the future of the ouvea premix stored at Mataura. The company that first brought it there was out of the picture and its liquidators, lacking the funds to remove it, formally disclaimed it in late 2017.

Naturally, local residents looked to Tiwai Point, the region’s mighty corporate power and source of the material, to step in. However, the smelter was unwilling to take on sole responsibility.

“Tiwai have got a part to play here right from day one,” says Gore mayor Tracy Hicks. “They’re party to producing it, they’re party to employing a group that were going to process it… They’re into it up to their eyes.

“They’ve got a moral responsibility to clean up a mess that they were party to creating.”

Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter, Southland (Photo: Creative Commons)

Cherie Chapman agrees. “That’s what really annoys the hell out of me because seriously, this is an environmental issue. It’s right by a river, it’s right on your [Laidlaw’s] land, it’s leaching.

“That’s classic Rio Tinto. They don’t give a rats.”

However, from 2018 onwards, the Gore District Council managed to broker a number of deals to have the ouvea premix removed from the mill. In September 2018, a $4m deal between affected parties was agreed to, involving a $1.75m contribution from NZAS and a $1.25m contribution from the Ministry for the Environment.

The following year, a deal was signed to have the waste transferred back to Tiwai Point where Australian-based company Inalco Processing Ltd would prepare it for export.

While locals were initially relieved that the waste would finally be removed from their town, the elation was soured when they realised it would take almost three years – until 2022 – before the job was completed.

Cherie Chapman says the long removal period would increase the risk of an incident that could imperil the town and environment.

“If they were really serious about moving that stuff they could have it gone in three months. But it’s one to two truckloads a week,” she says.

“All the way through this, we’ve been told ‘no, there won’t be a flood, we’ve done flood mapping, you’re overacting about the stuff that’s in there, stop raising this issue.’ The whole blindness of this has been phenomenal.”

The dreaded event

The event the locals were dreading arrived in early 2020, when heavy rain caused the Mataura River to swell to record high levels and press against the sides of the mill. The entire town was evacuated, and Gore District Council’s Steve Parry reached out to NZAS for help fast-tracking the removal.

“While the flood waters were rising I was in touch with the general manager of NZAS, who was just saying ‘can we do anything to help’, to which my reply was we need to talk about fast-tracking this removal.”

The flooded Mataura river (Photo: Stephen Jaquiery/ODT)

While a handshake deal was secured for a planned three-to-four-month removal process, Parry says the arrangement was scuppered about three days later by Rio Tinto, which overruled the general manager.

“The sense of fear and unease, we all felt it,” says Parry. “No one knew just what was going to happen with the ouvea premix. I understand completely the community’s revision about the tolerance of a two-and-a-half-year wait to get the stuff out of that premises.”

In July this year, legal proceedings were brought to the Environment Court between the Environmental Defence Society and New Zealand Aluminium Smelters to decide who actually owns the ouvea premix stored in Mataura paper mill. While a ruling is still pending, Judge Laurie Newhook says constructive planning is under way to have all the material removed by Christmas 2020.

However, based on the years of prevarication, delays and negligence, locals aren’t yet convinced that a ruling will have any effect. They need to see it actually being removed to know that the urgency of the situation is actually being appreciated.

“If the judge decides Rio Tinto own it, what then?” asks Laurel Turnbull. “Are they going to do anything about it? I don’t think so.”

Because of what they’ve gone through, these residents have lost faith in the processes and systems that should actually be serving them. With tonnes of hazardous sludge still sitting in their towns and across their farms, it will take a genuine and rare act of accountability to restore that trust, rest their nerves and ensure their six-year toxic curse is finally lifted.

Frame is a series of short, standalone documentaries produced by Wrestler for The Spinoff. Made with support from NZ On Air. Watch more here.




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