Toxic site’s distillation unit on Trade Me

While two companies give conflicting accounts of past events, authorities are silent on the sale of a piece of equipment which could be used to process the 830,000 litres of dangerous solvents.

The distillation unit essential to process the almost million litres of toxic and flammable solvents abandoned in Ruakaka appears to be for sale on Trade Me.

The distillation unit processes used solvents removing impurities. This recycled solvent can then be sold for use again. 

The still was listed for sale on Thursday, a day after Newsroom contacted Ruakaka's Sustainable Solvent’s Brian Smith regarding the abandoned toxic waste.

The Trade Me seller, smiffy27, is asking $200,000 for the German-made unit, which the listing says is the best and biggest still in New Zealand and capable of running automatically for 24 hours. The location for the listing is Whangārei.

Description of the solvent still for sale. Photo: Trade Me 

The listing reads: 

“This is a good buisness currant [sic] price for a drum of solvent is $275 to treat and dispose was turning over 50k amonth before closing down.”

The listing says a joint venture will be considered.

Sustainable Solvents and director Brian Smith have previously pleaded guilty in court to several charges of contaminating the Ruakaka land it owns 500 metres from the sea. Groundwater samples taken at the time contained levels of contaminant 1200 times higher than drinking water levels allow. 

Enforcement orders to remove a stockpile of chemicals greater than the 50,000 litres it was consented to store were ignored. 

A second company was also involved after the court case. Solvent Services had wanted to buy the business on the proviso Smith deal with the contaminated land. The deal fell over and the site contains chemicals belonging to this company too.

Solvent Services has since processed and removed some of the chemicals it is responsible for. 

It said it was only able to do this after pieces of the distillation unit, which had mysteriously vanished, were returned. Before it was able to finish processing all the solvents, parts of the still disappeared again.

Smith’s version of events is Solvent Services walked off the site, taking their assets but leaving behind their unprocessed chemicals.

It’s estimated the site currently contains around 830,000 litres of solvents. At $275 per drum quoted in the Trade Me listing, the amount of solvents on site mean the companies received over $1.3 million to remove and recycle the solvent.

The solvents are stored outdoors in corroding drums. Many of the pallets they sit on are rotting, and despite a drought there are wet areas underneath some of the drums. Some are highly flammable, others are toxic to aquatic life. There’s concern if a fire were to occur, the electricity to the Marsden Point Oil Refinery could be disrupted, or the oil pipeline could be ruptured.

Last week, Newsroom was told regulators were “working to advance that clean-up process”. It’s unclear what the options are if the still is sold.

The ownership of the still had been investigated by Worksafe in 2018. Newsroom does not know the outcome of the investigation.

The Northland Regional Council and Whangārei District Council were asked about the Trade Me sale. Both said they were unable to comment on why the still was for sale if negotiations to clean up the site were ongoing, what the possible sale of the still would mean for the processing of chemicals on site, or whether the still was owned by Sustainable Solvents - or a trust by another individual. 

They suggested contacting Smith for answers. He has not responded to Newsroom.

Northlander and ex-mayoral candidate Alex Wright was contacted anonymously about the problem last year. He raised the issue in the Bream Bay News  in November and has talked with Sustainable Solvents’ Smith. 

In the conversation, Smith said he’s not the terrible person he’s been painted to be and his current predicament is due to Solvent Services leaving solvents on his property.

He said 500,000 litres of solvents were his, but he has the equity for it to be cleaned up. In the conversation, while claiming responsibility for some of the solvents on site, he also distanced himself from the issue:

“I was only the owner. I didn’t operate the plant. I wouldn’t be able to switch it on.”

An image from a 2015 version of Sustainable Solvents' website. 

Wright wants the problem sorted out. She said locals have been kept in the dark about the site and she's concerned about where chemicals leaked from drums are ending up, and worries it could be the ocean, or ground water, which may be drunk. 

“I feel it’s the Northland Regional Council that needs to step up, step in and clean the mess up.”

She thinks the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a role to play too. 

“Ultimately the buck stops with them because they are our watchdog and there to protect our community.”

The EPA told Newsroom its coordination role in the matter has finished, but it is continuing to provide technical assistance.

A broken compliance system

An independent review into a system for hazardous substances compliance was launched in October 2018, four months after the problems at Ruakaka caused alarm. 

This was the second time toxic waste had been stored in dangerous quantities with the accumulator seemingly unable to fix the problem. The first, an electroplater in Timaru, cost taxpayers almost $1 million to clean up. It was paid for out of a $2.6 million contaminated site remediation fund. The review said this fund was "inadequate given the legacy and future risks the nation faces".

The findings of the review were published without fanfare in June 2019. It refers to the Sustainable Solvents’ land as a ‘Northland’ emergency incident that points to shortcomings in law.

It found the current system was “not fit for purpose” and made 31 recommendations and suggested the EPA take a leadership role in relation to the compliance of hazardous substances.

Minister for the Environment David Parker was asked what recommendations have been put in place since the review was published. 

“A number of the group’s recommendations will require further work and assessment if changes, particularly legislative, are to be considered. There is already work under way on improving the information flows that the group recommended.”

Read more:

The property stocked with 1 million litres of toxic chemicals

Southland's toxic time-bomb

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