Laurel, one of the Mataura residents fighting to have toxic ouvea premix removed from the town's paper mill (Photo: The Paper Mill)

Frame: Who owns the toxic waste in Mataura’s paper mill?

On the edge of the Mataura River, a disused paper mill is filled with thousands of bags of toxic waste. Locals want to find out who’s responsible for it – and they want it gone before disaster strikes.

First published November 10, 2020.

The Paper Mill is part of Frame, a series of short documentaries produced by Wrestler for The Spinoff.

In February 2020, Mataura locals’ worst nightmare came true. The river that runs through the small Southland town flooded, its swollen waters coming perilously close to the old paper mill. The mill is filled with thousands of bags of ouvea premix, or dross – a waste by-product of the aluminium smelting process that releases poisonous ammonia gas on contact with water.

Nobody in Mataura asked for their paper mill to be filled with toxic waste. It just started arriving in the middle of the night, dropped off by the truckload. And now that it’s there, the town is locked in an ongoing struggle to determine exactly who’s responsible for getting rid of it, and when.

All roads in this story lead to Tiwai, the aluminium smelter 75km down the road, majority owned by global mining giant Rio Tinto. Tiwai originally sold the dross to a company called Taha Industries, who then processed it further into ouvea premix. But Taha Industries has gone into liquidation, creating a vacuum of accountability for the thousands of bags stored precariously close to the river.

Going back and forth between Tiwai and Rio Tinto, Environment Southland and the District Council, the fight for a solution has been slow and frustrating for those most affected. “It doesn’t give you any confidence in the people who are supposed to be looking after us,” says Laurel, one of the Mataura residents who’s been campaigning for years. “They just don’t seem to care.”

Frame is a series of short, standalone documentaries produced by Wrestler for The Spinoff. Watch more here.

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