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Southland floods and toxic waste

Written By: - Date published: 7:05 am, February 6th, 2020 - 45 comments
Categories: disaster - Tags: , , , , , , ,

The floods in Southland over the past few days were being reported as the biggest in 35 years. A state of emergency was declared mid afternoon on Tuesday and by Wednesday morning people were being evacuated. The rain had stopped but the rivers were set to peak later in the day.

In some areas people were being told to ‘get out now’ and the army were called in in the afternoon to help. One couple were arrested and removed from their property for trying to stay and save their animals. The main trunk line was closed with two freight trains having to be abandoned near Gore. Many farms are affected and the government has declared an adverse event allow the farming welfare fund to be released.

Media coverage was sometimes patchy, in part because of the large area that was cut off from access (all road access from Otago into Southland was gone) and apparently because few national MSM outlets have journalists on the ground in Southland. The ODT, Southland Times/Stuff, and RNZ had good coverage, others appeared to struggle,

The other somewhat disturbing thing was the relative lack of visibility from central government. I know they were tied up with Waitangi, and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor flew down in the afternoon, but it was still odd to not see the government saying much. Nothing on twitter or Facebook from Labour or the Greens. Disappointing.

The inconsistent media coverage was even more obvious in the emerging story of the 10,000 tonnes of toxic waste from the Tiwai aluminium smelter being stored in the old paper mill on the banks of the Mataura River, that is at risk of releasing noxious gases on coming into contact with water. It’s a known hazard, and locals have been trying for years to get the stuff moved. Volunteers sandbagging the mill yesterday left suddenly and were not allowed back in.

University of Canterbury scientists said there was a plausible concern about serious toxicity to people and the environment. Gore District Council CE quoted in the Southland Times,

I can’t rule it out, we’re just doing the best we can.

We are definitely worried, but we are doing all we can do to make that building as resilient as possible.

There are no real measures we can take, we are going to have to react to what unfolds.

There was some confusion over the day about whether people in Mataura, where the whole town was evacuated and closed Wednesday morning, were told to leave because of the flooding or because of the risk of noxious gas. The low lying areas were obvious flood risked, but people on the hills had to leave too and a very large cordon was established around the area.

Civil Defence put out a statement mid afternoon “to quell speculation and misinformation about the ouvea premix at the Mataura paper mill”, but it left some questions unanswered eg how are they monitoring the toxic waste when they say “We have had no reports of any ammonia coming from the paper mill”. However one of the people sandbagging said they left because of the ammonia.

Meanwhile, the best explanations came from twitter. @stevens_phil backgrounder twitter thread,

Several mentions of ouvea premix being stored next to the flooding Mataura River, and the problem it poses. Not one about where it came from, why, or the fight the locals put up to prevent this from happening.

Since the news stories don’t give any context, I had to look it up.

Ouvea premix is treated aluminium smelter dross, a Class 6 hazardous substance.

Waste from Tiwai Pt.

The smelter operators outsourced the remediation of the dross to a firm that apparently bid too low and went bankrupt.

But it’s no longer Rio Tinto’s problem. Handy!

Ouvea premix is less toxic than dross, but you have to keep the stuff dry. Its intended use was for addition to concrete and lime for foundations, and in this state it is apparently considered environmentally “safe.” On its own it is a pollutant.


Ouvea premix can also be used in the manufacture of phosphate fertilisers. But apparently no one wants to use it for that, so the former processor Taha Asia Pacific stockpiled thousands of tonnes of the stuff until it went belly up in 2016.

The liquidators managed to wash their hands of the sticky mess by saying “Not our problem” in Dec 2017. Magic.
The tar baby landed squarely in the lap of local councils, residents, and central govt.

A deal was brokered in 2018 but nothing much happened. By mid 2019 the locals were tired of the can-kicking and again pressed for urgency.


One truckload (52 bulk bags) a fortnight is the schedule. At this rate the Mataura paper mill building will be clear by 2026. How many more climate chaos-induced exceptional rainfall events arrive in Southland in that time is anyone’s guess, but I’m betting it’s greater than zero

And what is Plan B? An “accident” at sea?

The whole saga reeks. Too much like many other environmental contamination problems in NZ…no attention to remediation in the initial consents. No clear chain of responsibility.

Lots of “she’ll be right.”

[post updated to fix missing tweets in the thread]

With locals understandably concerned, I’m hoping the MSM will pick up this story today, including where the various stores of the premix are and how well they are secured. I’d also like to know what’s happened to the bags sent back to Tiwai, how is it being transported, and what the medium and long term plans are for the ongoing waste being created by the smelter, as well as investigations into the alleged dumping of some of the waste. How secure are the other storage sites for another 12,000 tonnes around Southland?

Why was waste known to become toxic on exposure to water allowed to be stored on the banks of a river with known flood risk in a building with known flood risk? Why wasn’t this sorted after previous floods in 2018 where ”environmental disaster” was narrowly avoided?

And why the hell is it left up to residents to push for this to be sorted, instead of corporations taking responsibility for their own shit?

The Matarua River and old paper mill on a good day,


Photo Lisa Girao

Front page photo: the Mataura River just upstream from the paper mill during the 1978 flood.

45 comments on “Southland floods and toxic waste ”

    • weka 1.1

      I'm guessing there's a bigger story here. I'm assuming the dross isn't a new byproduct of the smelter.

      • It's been well known of for several years, essentially the smelter chose the lowest bidder to get rid of it, then washed their hands of it. The lowest bidder went bankrupt leaving it lying around Southland (I think at one point it was stored in several places).

        Of course they're still making the stuff ….

  1. Robert Guyton 2

    Back in the day, the then-beautiful Mataura Falls, site of the traditional, lamprey/kanakana harvest, were dynamited so that electricity for industry could be generated by the force of the water. The bags of pre-mix sit in a building beside the falls. I suppose that when you destroy such a body, the consequences are long-term.

  2. The smelter operators outsourced the remediation of the dross to a firm that apparently bid too low and went bankrupt.

    But it’s no longer Rio Tinto’s problem. Handy!

    And every time we hear how the corporation that wants mining, oil exploration etc rights is fully committed to ensuring that the waste products of their activity are handled appropriately, the above is literally what they are talking about. If governments won't address that, they needn't expect people to quietly accept mining, oil exploration etc.

    • weka 3.1

      I think this also underlies why so many of the public don't trust reassurances from authorities, esp those living next door. CD can say it's safe, but wtf were the councils doing giving approval for the storage in the first place and leaving it there for so long in the second place?

    • RedLogix 3.2

      If the company recycling your household waste goes broke, do you expect it all to be delivered back to you at your cost?

      • Psycho Milt 3.2.1

        Nope. However, if I were setting up an extractive industry for personal gain that involves producing significant amounts of toxic waste, and my plan for dealing with that waste was "outsource to the lowest bidder and wash my hands of it," I'd expect the council to find that a not very satisfactory plan when it was considering my resource consent application.

        • RedLogix

          Which is the point I made below, this was a local govt resource consent problem from the get go.

          And as Robert has confirmed … the smelter hasn't 'wiped it's hands' of the problem. Unless we can produce evidence to suggest otherwise, it's entirely likely they entered the contract to dispose of this material in the good faith expectation that it would be handled responsibly. That this didn't happen is unfortunate and it appears all parties were working their way toward a solution.

    • Robert Guyton 3.3

      The smelter is in fact contributing financially to the removal that was underway before the flooding. As were the various councils, for all their sins.

  3. Cinny 4

    What a terrible situation.

  4. Robert Guyton 5

    To give the various councils some due, the process of removing the dross from the building beside the river was already underway. Getting to the point where that was happening was so convoluted and seemingly opaque that unravelling it on a thread here would be impossible. All parties have lost hair over this. Cinny summed it up best.

    • RedLogix 5.1

      Thanks for this. Having worked for a Regional Council in my past I can well understand how this might have happened. Everyone was probably working towards the right outcome, but each party has their own rules and processes to abide by … and it all took far too long.

      Very familiar.

    • weka 5.2

      Do you know why the mill was chosen, given the water issues with the waste and the flood history?

      • Robert Guyton 5.2.1

        Perhaps the owner was looking to make a quid, hiring out the space.

        • weka

          no consent needed?

          • Robert Guyton

            Given by the Gore District Council, I believe smiley

            • pat

              retrospectively….a year after storage started

              • weka

                I would have thought consent was needed beforehand, and that no council should have given it given the site. But, if they put it there without permission, they need to take responsibility. I assume the company directors are still alive?

                • pat

                  and living in Bahrain….and one in Invercargill, though suspect he was the patsy

                • Graeme

                  Considering there's a freezing works across the river, and the site was a paper mill until quite recently, both uses having fairly extreme hazardous substance profiles, the operator would have thought the effects would have been similar to the existing uses at Mataura. Similar scenario / management thinking to the tannery that became a water bottling plant in Christchurch.

                  In this case the risk profile is many times greater than the previous use, but I wouldn't like to be around a paper mill or freezing works that's got the Mataura River charging through the place.

                  • Robert Guyton

                    Oh that it was stored in secure bags, easily transported. The problems here are multitudinous.

                    • Graeme

                      At least the roof doesn't leak like it did in the warehouse it was stored in at Bluff before it was moved to Mataura.

                      I don't think 'can' is quite the right word to describe the worm container, something larger than human scale might be more appropriate.

              • Sacha

                And no prosecution for that, I presume?

  5. Robert Guyton 6

    "Emergency services and others have carried out further flood protection works this morning by sandbagging around the building. Around 2,660 cumecs of water was expected at Mataura. Emergency Management Southland is co-ordinating with other relevant agencies, including iwi. Ouvea premix can produce ammonia when wet. The risks associated with the premix have been considered when setting the evacuation zones around the paper mill."

  6. adam 7

    Liberalism is working just fine then.


  7. Graeme 8

    I wonder if this will affect the Smelter's social license to operate in Southland. Most, like pretty much all, Southlanders view the Smelter as a very good thing to have in the district. Elsewhere in the country the view's more balanced to maybe negative regarding the value of the Smelter, but in Southland they want it, with a passion.

    The operators will be under pressure to spend a lot more on getting rid of the premix in a shorter timeframe. There's also negotiations between the Smelter and Transpower / Meridian regarding the price the Smelter pays for power which may not be going well. And this headline popped up on harold, saying the Smelter will sell rather than close, don't know if it's that relevant 'cause I'm too tight to spring for a sub.

    10,000 tonne of stinking premix in the middle of Mataura will complicate the negotiations.

    • weka 8.1

      what have they done with the premix historically?

      • Graeme 8.1.1

        Pretty much what's being done with it now, only worse.  A lot sat in a very dilapidated warehouse in Bluff for years, and in gravel pits and other holes in the ground.  Been a festering sore around the South for a very long time.  Unfortunately most of it pre-dates the digital age and Google, but this https://www.odt.co.nz/regions/southland/taha-sentencing-delayed gives some of the more recent shit (same link as above), can't find anything about the Bluff debacle, too old.

        • weka

          So the treating and repurposing is a more recent thing, and historically it's just been stored in various sites (often badly)?

          That link doesn't talk about the history before Taha. I'm thinking from when the smelter was opened (early 70s).

  8. Observer Tokoroa 9

    We might well say "Poor fellow my Country"

    For we are polluted from top to bottom. Our rivers not drinkable. Not safely swimmable. Yet we claim to be Clean Clean Clean. Shouted out to the world by the great John Key and his followers.

    The extent of our pollution is not known. Urban and Rural kiwis will have to learn that Pollution is crime.

    Life itself depends on Purity – whether Industry, Farming or Horticulture likes it or not.

  9. Wayne 10

    New Zealand has derelict industrial buildings, especially old freezing works in rural areas, up and down the country. These days when mines are consented, there has to be a remediation bond. Pity that was not the case with these sorts of industrial buildings.

    It would be hard to impose this requirement retrospectively. Often the original owners are long gone, in liquidation, etc.

    Robert, does the Council have any power to take over the site and remediate it? The existing buildings are an eyesore and obviously pose some risk. Though I guess in this instance the floodwaters did not rise high enough to actually flood the building.

    • Sacha 10.1

      Resource consent to use that place to store water-sensitive waste seems defective at best.

  10. Ad 12

    From the interview with RNZ and the Gore Chief Executive this morning, the matter appears well in hand.

    I would like to see the Regional Council demolish the offending buildings, and also restore the Mataura River back to its original falls so that it is more capable of dealing with floods in future.

  11. Robert Guyton 13

    Ever played "Old Maid?

    No one wants to be stuck with the "Ouvea" card in their hand.

    And yet it never goes away, circulating among the players, each of whom tries to keep a straight face when it arrives for fear that they'll be stuck with it.

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