Abandoned toxic waste will take two years, $3m to clean up

A two-year mission to clean up 1 million litres of abandoned toxic waste is under way in Northland.

The waste, which has sat at a property in Ruakaka for three years, includes a range of chemicals, some of which are flammable and some which are toxic to aquatic life.

The first stage of the clean up is expected to cost $3 million.

The waste is 110 metres away from electricity lines which power the oil refinery at Marsden Point and 80m from the pipeline which carries petrol, diesel and jet fuel to Auckland.

The township of Ruakaka is 2km away.

Following the two-year-long first stage of the clean up, a second stage, involving testing the soil for contamination and remediating the site, will be needed. The cost of this has yet to be estimated.

The chemicals were illegally stockpiled by companies, including property owner Sustainable Solvents Group, who intended to distil and recycle solvents used in engineering, dry cleaning, printing and painting.

About 1m litres were never distilled and have remained in rusting, leaking drums for several years while officials tried to get the companies to deal with the mess.

Last year Whangārei District Council obtained an interim enforcement order which allowed it to clean up the site and bill the owners.

The costs were being covered by the Ministry for the Environment, WorkSafe, Northland Regional Council and Whangārei District Council.

The bill is three times more than the last big chemical clean-up undertaken by government agencies, after an electroplating company in Timaru stockpiled 90,000 litres of toxic chemicals.

Whangārei District Council General Manager of Infrastructure Simon Weston said the council would try to recover costs from Sustainable Solvents, Sustainable Solvents Group and Solvent Services NZ.

Asked what the chances were of recovering the money, he said: “It is too early to know. It will be determined by the courts.”

Some of the costs could fall on ratepayers.

The only item of value associated with the property is a distillation unit said to be purchased for $750,000 by Sustainable Solvent’s Brian Smith.

Officials have looked for the unit but were unable to find it, however, after Newsroom reported on the problems on the site last year, a Trade Me listing for a distillation unit appeared, posted by user smiffy27. The listing had an asking price of $200,000, said the unit was in storage in Whangārei and that a joint venture and finance would be considered.

“This is a good buisness currant price for a drum of solvent is $275 to treat and dispose was turning over 50k amonth before closing down (sic),” the listing read.

The listing was later removed. Weston said as far as he knew the distillation unit had not been recovered by any agency and chemicals on the site were not being recycled on the property but would be transported elsewhere to facilities in Christchurch and Australia to be disposed of safely.

Danny Fitzgerald, an environmental scientist for GHD, the company leading the clean-up work for Whangārei District Council, said the contents of each drum was considered “unidentified” as they were all unlabelled or mislabelled.

Each container needed to be opened, sampled and – when test results confirmed its contents – sent to the correct place for disposal.

Fitzgerald estimated there were 4000 drums on the site and around 500 large plastic storage containers.

Roughly 95 percent of what has been tested so far were flammable, non-chlorinated solvents, such as toluene and xylene.

Strict rules were in place to reduce the risk of fire. Monitoring for flammable and explosive vapour was conducted daily, and an alarm would sound if dangerous levels were reached. Vegetation around the site was periodically trimmed to reduce the risk of a grass fire reaching the site and some fire fighting gear was on site.

Asked what the worst case scenario would be if there was a fire at the property, Fitzgerald said he would rather not speculate on the outcome.

In the event of a fire at the property, locals living downwind from the site would be evacuated.

Last year, grass fires came within 700m of the property.

Fires are currently prohibited in the area, but could be sparked accidentally or by lightning strikes. Lightning caused 26 fires in New Zealand over the last calendar year, accounting for 0.11 percent of all fire causes.

During 2020, MetService said there were 41 lightning strikes within a 10km radius of the site, which reached the ground or sea. Between 2016 and 2020 there were 260 strikes.

Officials from the Ministry for the Environment were concerned, as far back as 2018, about the risk the chemicals posed to the refinery, documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act response showed.

“There is a risk, although it may be small, that if a disaster on site were to occur then power to the Marsden Point Refinery may be taken out and/or the pipeline ruptured.”

A spokesperson for Refinery NZ, who operate the Marsden Point oil refinery, said the company was aware of the site and were supportive of the clean up.

Refinery NZ did not respond to questions about what impact it could face if the toxic stockpile caught fire.

The clean-up marks the end of more than a decade of issues.

Sustainable Solvents and its owner, Brian Smith, had resource consent to store up to 50,000L of solvents at the Ruakaka property, however safety and compliance Issues were noted by WorkSafe from 2010, just two years after the consent was granted, according to Newsroom.

In 2014, a former employee blew the whistle, revealing solid waste which accumulates at the bottom of the distillation unit had been dumped when it should have been sent to a landfill facility capable of dealing with toxic waste.

A briefing document from the Ministry for the Environment said Smith had experimented with composting the sludge instead. It estimated 150 to 200 tonnes of contaminated material was buried illegally on and close to the Ruakaka property.

The Northland Regional Council prosecuted the company for the dumping and part of the sentence included cleaning up the contaminated land and dealing with the excess stockpiled drums of solvents.

This never happened and a second company, Solvent Services NZ Limited, whose directors are John Manus Pretorius and Aaron Geoffrey Baldwin, entered the picture. This company agreed to a business lease of Sustainable Solvents, with a view to purchase it.

Before completing distilling the existing excess chemicals stored on the property by Sustainable Solvents, this company brought more chemicals to the site to process. The sale fell through and around 1 million litres of chemicals belonging to the companies were left on the property.

Since 2018, multiple agencies, including the Ministry for the Environment, the Environmental Protection Authority, Northland Regional Council and Whangārei District Council have been involved.

Mediation with the companies failed and the enforcement order was issued in March 2020.