Pages from the report published by Flora and Fauna NZ
Pages from the report published by Flora and Fauna NZ

ScienceDecember 2, 2019

The dead rats of Westport and the mystery lab: a new twist in the tail

Pages from the report published by Flora and Fauna NZ
Pages from the report published by Flora and Fauna NZ

The release of an anonymous lab report that found massive 1080 concentrations prompts Dave Hansford to ask: is history repeating itself?

The last week has seen a great deal of discussion about claims made by the anti-1080 front group, Flora and Fauna Aotearoa (F&F), in relation to the deaths of hundreds of rats and other animals that washed up in Westport nearly three weeks ago.

I explored it at length here, but a brief recap: F&F said an “independent laboratory” had found not just traces, but heavy concentrations, of 1080 in the animals. The results contradicted nil results found earlier that week by Landcare Research. F&F released a “lab report” but have refused to reveal where it came from. Since then, agencies, scientists and journalists have been trying to ascertain the identity of the “mystery lab”. Toxicologists, meanwhile, have expressed serious doubts over many of the report’s findings and methodology.

Read part 1:

Dead rats, a mystery lab, and the very curious antics of the anti-1080 lobby

So what, and who, might be involved in the mystery lab? There are a number of similarities, in my view, between the Westport case and a string of other alleged instances of chemical contamination, all of them investigated at the behest of activist groups by Timaru chemist Dr Nick Wall.

Wall cites his academic qualifications as a BSc in chemistry and a PhD in surface chemistry, both from Cardiff University. In 2015, he told Stuff that he read several hundred pages of scientific papers a day, and slept only two hours a night. He has charged that “old boys’ clubs” are hiding “dirty secrets” around New Zealand. “The place is a cesspit.”

When I asked him to comment on the mystery lab report, he dismissed my inkling that he might be involved. “I do not see why you may think I know anything worthwhile on this particular topic,” he wrote in an email.

A string of coincidences had led me to wonder whether history was repeating itself. In the summer of 2015, the Opihi Catchment Environment Protection Society commissioned Wall to test sediment from the Opuha lake bed, north of Fairlie, for DDT. That July, the society announced on national television that Wall’s tests had confirmed the evidence of a toxic dump with DDT levels high enough, said Wall, to “bankrupt” the local regional council, Environment Canterbury.

A search with ground-penetrating radar found no such dump. Divers took sediment and fish samples from the same site that, on testing by Hill Laboratories in Hamilton, ALS Laboratories in Australia and Asure Quality in New Zealand, were found to contain none of the DDT that Wall claimed to have detected. ECan chief executive Bill Bayfield told media the DDT investigation had cost ratepayers between $50,000 and $100,000.

A subsequent ECan report concluded that: “Results from the different laboratories showed us the value of using accredited laboratories that have strong quality assurance of their procedures and results.”

Just weeks later, Wall provided protest group GE Free NZ with test results he claimed showed high concentrations of glyphosate in two milk samples. Like his DDT findings, the concentrations were extraordinarily high, but Wall would not give any details about his testing process, or his equipment.

Wall’s work sparked a spate of tests by the Ministry for Primary Industries, which took 360 milk samples from farms and shops during the 2014/2015 milk season. When AsureQuality tested them, they found no trace of glyphosate or any break-down products. GE Free’s claims were never substantiated.

In comments familiar from toxicologists’ appraisals of the mystery 1080 report, a peer reviewer of Wall’s 2012-2013 testing of Rangitata river water samples said in a report to ECan: “I have seen a brief summary of the results of this study, but it is difficult to comment further, as I have not seen the methods and the quality assurance used in the analysis.”

According to a Timaru Herald report at the time, government agencies that investigated Wall’s claims were not able to establish the location of his laboratory.

In May 2015, the Timaru Herald reported that when an MPI official repeatedly asked Wall for details of his samples, he told them a laptop and lab records had been stolen from one of his laboratories. (He insists that at least part of that reporting is not true; a laptop was never stolen.) He has told media that he once received a bullet in the mail and been the victim of vandalism.

In an interview for a previous story about the identity of the “mystery lab”, F&F spokesperson Di Maxwell said she would not disclose the tester’s identity because “he’s had his tyres slashed, he’s had his computer stolen, he had his house vandalised, he had a bullet through the mail. I could go on and on.”

On November 22, Wall posted excerpts from the mystery lab report on his Facebook page.

Wall’s first response to my request for an interview seemed unambiguous. “I do not see why you may think i know anything worthwhile on this particular topic.” He was busy, he said, “but if you wish to submit your questions in writing I shall try and get them answered as well as I can.”

I asked him: “Did you produce the lab report released by Flora and Fauna Aotearoa that found 1080 in the Westport rats?”

He replied in turn: “Who I do work for is none of anybodies (sic) business, but not done anything for them to my knowledge. I am not a member of any 1080 organization, either pro or anti.”

For good measure, he added: “The last media guy who tried to put words into my mouth paid handsomely, as did his editor.”

A follow-up email from Wall – before the publication of this story –advised: “It is a non story mate,,,, you have barked up the wrong tree again and my legal team is picking it apart word by word for factual inaccuracies and supposition……I cannot be bothered to dignify your rubbish with even reading it.”

He continued: “I hope that you and your editors and paymasters have very deep pockets if my boys find anything.”

Speaking of finding things, I then cut and paste the lab results pdf into Microsoft Word, which had the effect of revealing the redacted laboratory details. A further coincidence appeared: the lab supervisor’s initials are NW.

When I asked Flora and Fauna Aotearoa about Wall’s involvement, they threatened to lay a police complaint and take legal action.

Absent any overwhelming evidence, we should, of course, take Dr Wall at his word.

I offered F&F the opportunity to defend their report’s findings, but they were silent. The mystery lab report is, like the rats it tested, dead in the water.

Keep going!