Smelter waste talks sour – again

For the second time this year, talks with the country’s aluminium smelter over historic toxic waste have broken down. David Williams reports

It was a tip-off to Laurel Turnbull in 2014 that led to the revelation hazardous waste from Bluff’s aluminium smelter was being illegally stored in the Southland town of Mataura, about 50km north-east of Invercargill.

“I’ve lived in Mataura all my life,” she says of the town of 1600 people, about 100 fewer than lived there in 1951. “I’ve been a councillor, and I’ve been on the community board, and people know that I speak out.”

The old paper mill, on the eastern bank of the Mataura River, closed in 2000, but nearby residents noticed something was being transported and stored there. They suspected it was coming from the smelter at Tiwai Point, near Bluff.

After getting no joy from a local councillor, Turnbull passed the information to Gore’s paper, The Ensign (which, incidentally, started life as The Mataura Ensign in 1878).

Sure enough, the tip was right. Dross from Tiwai, known as ouvea premix, was being carted to the mill by Bahrain-owned company Taha Asia Pacific, which didn’t have consent. It was seeking one, Turnbull was told, without public input.

“I said, well, we’re not having that, so that’s when we blew it in the paper, and everything came to light.”

Taha got consent from council-appointed commissioners and were given two years to move it. But the company collapsed in 2016, after being unable to renew its processing contract with the smelter. Taha never paid a $2.3 million bond.

“They went into liquidation and walked away and left us holding the mess,” says Turnbull, a key figure in the Sort out the Dross group.

That mess is potentially poisonous – the class-six hazardous substance releases ammonia gas when mixed with water.

A year ago, a $4 million deal was struck between the smelter, Ministry for the Environment, local councils and land owners, to cart the material to Tiwai for processing and export. Australian company Inalco has removed about 1500 tonnes of dross since last October. Inalco couldn’t be reached for comment.

But the mill’s had two near misses this year. In February, the river flooded, getting perilously close to the mill, making the ouvea problem national news. Then, last Sunday, an outside sprinkler burst because of frost, sending water through the building. Luckily the material is stored on wooden pallets, in extra-lined plastic bags, and wasn’t touched.

The situation is apparently urgent, but remains unresolved five months after a major flood. Environment Minister David Parker is being briefed by officials about negotiations. But they might have been made more difficult by major shareholder Rio Tinto announcing it would close the smelter, which employs 1000 people and uses about 13 percent of the country’s electricity, in August next year.

The ouvea premix is now the subject of an Environment Court case. Just before Rio Tinto’s closure announcement, the Environmental Defence Society filed declaratory proceedings contending New Zealand Aluminium Smelters (NZAS) is responsible for the material, and needs to take steps, promptly, to remove it to a safe site.

Turnbull’s frustrated. “We just need somewhere for it to go,” she says. “That’s all we’re asking, is just someone take it away, away from the side of the river where it should never have been in the first place.”

“The sprinkler that was frozen is an indicator that the local community has been lucky twice now.” – John Yates

Sunday’s sprinkler incident in Mataura was no surprise to Auckland businessman John Yates – last month he warned Parker of that very prospect.

He wrote to the minister on June 25: “Have you been informed that many of those bags sit under a live fire-alarmed sprinkler system which, if triggered, for whatever reason, will wet these bags and release ammonia?”

Parker says, via email, he’s aware of the mill’s sprinkler system and is advised the dross is stored in waterproof bags “minimising the risk of gas being created”. Fire crews on Sunday were cautious enough to take gas readings, which came back as “zero”.

Yates tells Newsroom: “The sprinkler that was frozen is an indicator that the local community has been lucky twice now.”

(Turnbull wasn’t concerned about the incident. She says emergency services dealt with it well. “There was really no threat to anybody, but social media blew it all up.”)

Gore Mayor Tracy Hicks says he’s negotiating with the mill’s owner, Dunedin businessman Greg Paterson, and others, to have the sprinklers deactivated. Paterson couldn’t be reached for comment.

Yates has a vested interest in lobbying the minister: he’s put a proposal to the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) to cart the hazardous waste away. While he’s yet to secure a storage site, or inspect the mill and assess the state of the dross bags, he states, bullishly, that with round-the-clock trucking, the remaining dross could be removed from the mill by Christmas and within $4 million.

“We remain ready, willing and able to render effective assistance.”

Invercargill council’s planning team Leader Liz Devery says three city sites, including one owned by the council, have consents to store ouvea premix.

“However, those consents limit the amount which may be stored at each property, and should that amount be increased, a new resource consent would be required.”

Yates’ proposal is one of about six which will now be seriously looked at by MfE, after recent negotiations with Rio Tinto-controlled NZAS over accelerated dross removal from Mataura were halted.

Parker says: “One of the potential options is removal to Tiwai Point, but NZAS has put consideration of that on hold.”

It’s not the first time talks with the smelter company have broken down. In February, Gore council’s boss Steve Parry announced NZAS had agreed, with a handshake, to fast-track removal of Matuara’s dross. The following week, Parry said Rio Tinto vetoed the agreement.

Shaun Lewis, MfE’s director of system change and investments, won’t divulge details about the renewed negotiations but says they broke down “pretty recently”.

“We have got other options that we’re exploring. When we first started talking about fast-tracking removal we had a number of approaches. We need to go back and chase those ideas with those individuals and organisations.”

In an anonymised, emailed statement, Rio Tinto says the announcement on July 9 “in relation to the termination of our electricity agreement” doesn’t change its commitment to help with the dross removal.

“NZAS remains committed to the 2018 funding agreement and its contribution of $1.75 million to support the removal of the ouvea premix. We also continue to remain engaged with all the relevant stakeholders in relation to this issue.”

Gore Mayor Hicks is lukewarm on Rio Tinto’s commitment. The company’s “fronting up a little bit”, he says, but “not as much as they should be”.

He’s annoyed Southland ratepayers, and taxpayers, are having to pay to remove something they had no part in putting there. The ouvea that’s being moved from Mataura now is going to Tiwai before being exported, Hicks notes, because the smelter has the appropriate system for dealing with the hazardous material.

“The only place that I believe it can go to is the Tiwai site.”

“The consequences of the failed arrangements between NZAS and Taha continue to impact on the local community to this day.” – David Parker

Hicks’ conclusion matches that of Minister Parker.

He wrote to NZAS boss Stewart Hamilton in late February, after Rio Tinto reneged on the handshake deal, saying: “The material originated from the NZAS site, and I remain of the view that the most appropriate and obvious outcome is for the aluminium dross by-product to be returned to Tiwai Point for storage and processing.”

Parker flayed the company for essentially passing the buck to central government and the local community to clean up the mess it had made. The letter criticised its “limited commitment” to addressing at least four historic stockpiles of dross in Southland, and “no commitment at all to speed up the process”.

There’s an aspect of déjà vu to the situation.

Haysom Metal Industries used to process the smelter’s dross. But in 1991, after it was hit with a council abatement notice limiting its operating hours, the plant closed, leaving a 16,000-tonne stockpile of dross.

It took until 2003 for a deal to be inked, again involving government agencies, local councils and landowners, to have the dross disposed of on smelter-owned land.

Parker’s February letter says there’s been a “pattern of unsatisfactory arrangements” for waste disposal from the smelter, leaving other parties to pick up the bill.

“The consequences of the failed arrangements between NZAS and Taha continue to impact on the local community to this day. The wellbeing of Southland’s people and its waterways have been put at risk and significant costs associated with disposal have fallen to local and central government rather than NZAS or its contractors.”

A petition has urged the Government to take any means necessary to remove the dross from the paper mill and relocate it to Tiwai. Parker said in February he was considering legal action, but, so far, that has come to nought. And despite two near-misses – the February flood and last Sunday’s sprinkler spill – no one can say when, or if, an accelerated removal from Mataura will happen.

Hicks, the Gore mayor, says he hasn’t talked to Parker about the dross in some time. “I daresay if there was a solution in the offing I would have heard about it.” Parker says, blandly, MfE is actively investigating options. Lewis, of MfE, says: “It’s a complex issue from a number of different perspectives and it just takes time to work through some of those complexities. We’re working as fast as we can.”

Meanwhile, Yates, the Auckland businessman, is waiting, somewhat impatiently, in the wings.

He hasn’t been waiting as long as Mataura’s Turnbull, though.

She describes the situation as “really, really frustrating”. She recalls the 1978 floods washing through the family home in Scott St, and being anxious at the time. “But then you settle down when nothing happens. With this [dross] stuff of course, that’s a whole new ball game.”

Over the years, people have come forward with potential solutions, she says, but things fizzle out. “There just seems to be wheels within wheels – it just doesn’t go any further.”

Emptying the mill and removing the threat from the dross would be a great relief, she says. It can’t come soon enough.

“If we’ve got to wait another two-and-a-half years, that could be too late. Because the way the weather is now, we’re just getting rain events every few months.

“It’s not fair, it’s not fair to anybody.”

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