Toxic well underlines windmill plan fears in Taranaki

7:32 pm on 20 December 2022
John Hooker with the locked pump station which is nitrate-contaminated

John Hooker with the locked pump station which is nitrate-contaminated. Photo: LDR / Supplied / Te Korimako o Taranaki

A contaminated well that can no longer supply a South Taranaki marae highlights the fears driving the latest court action against a wind-to-hydrogen plant.

At Aotearoa Pā in Ōkaiawa, nitrate pollution has made the water undrinkable since testing in 2005, as it converts to toxic nitrite in the body.

Nitrate contamination of aquifers stems from urea fertiliser spread on farms, and urine from the higher number of cows that fertiliser makes possible.

Kaumātua John Hooker said the level of nitrate made the water unsafe.

"With nitrate in our well water we couldn't let females drink the water - it was unsafe for foetal development."

Hooker said developing evidence also backed long-held concerns that extended exposure to nitrates increases the risk of bowel cancer.

The Aotearoa Pā hapū, Ōkahu Inuāwai, is heading to the Appeal Court with Greenpeace and other Ngāruahine hapū to seek tighter controls on the plan to make hydrogen from wind-powered electricity at nearby Kāpuni.

Initially all the hydrogen will be used for urea.

The objectors are worried Hiringa Energy will not follow its stated plan to sell all the hydrogen to fuel heavy transport within five years, and that Ballance Agri-Nutrients will instead keep using it to make urea.

Hiringa Energy chief executive Andrew Clennett said it made commercial sense to sell it as a fuel instead, but the company had no control over how quickly the hydrogen transport market developed.

"We need an economic way of building that infrastructure and providing a flexible supply, as during the early establishment phases there won't be a constant stream of vehicles arriving to fuel."

Ballance chief executive Mark Wynne said concern about using hydrogen for urea was misdirected.

"The project will not increase the use of urea in New Zealand, most of which is imported from the Middle East and Asia and produced there using coal and gas."

But Hooker said there were no conditions on the project's consent to guarantee a switch from fertiliser to fuel.

"There's no time period put on [the proposal] apart from the 35-year approval to have that windmill up. There's nothing to stop Ballance using that windmill-powered hydrogen to make urea for 35 years."

Meanwhile, Hooker said Aotearoa Pā now relied on South Taranaki District Council's public water supply.

A government grant of some $250,000 installed a pipeline from Ahipaipa Road for the marae and other neighbours.

"We had free water before, but other land users' activities have poisoned our water, and now we have to pay to obtain potable water from our own river. So that really gets up our nostrils."

Hooker said that will not change any time soon given the time it takes to recharge aquifers.

"All of our farmers use urea but we're only just starting to get sustainable practices occurring for urea from the point of view of discharge to waterways, and leaching down to our water aquifers.

"I won't be holding my breath for nitrate levels in our well to come clear."

New Zealand's nitrate-nitrogen limits for drinking water are currently 11 parts per million (ppm), based on the risk of blue baby syndrome.

But public health experts have been concerned by a 23-year study of 2.7 million people in Denmark which in 2018 found an increase in bowel cancer risk from as low as 0.87 ppm, with a 15 percent increase in risk at levels over 2.1 ppm.

Other studies have also found increased risk of bowel cancer, as well as thyroid disease and neural tube defects.

Bowel cancer is the most commonly reported cancer in New Zealand, with 3000 cases and 1200 deaths each year.

Māori have a lower rate of bowel cancer than non-Māori, but tend to contract it younger, and once diagnosed death rates are higher for Māori.

In addition to the known blue baby risk, midwives were also worried by two recent international studies linking nitrate exposure above 5ppm during pregnancy to pre-term birth and low birth weight, consistent with other studies.

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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