26 Jan 2018

Toxic water: 'It's the uncertainty that's the killer'

9:56 am on 26 January 2018

Some Manawatu locals are accusing government agencies of not fronting up promptly about drinking water contamination caused by the Air Force.

Marcus Walsh, 42, with Kayla Tom, 8, beside their back fence which looks out on to Ohakea Air Force base where the contamination originated.

Marcus Walsh, 42, with Kayla Tom, 8, beside their back fence which looks out on to Ohakea Air Force base where the contamination originated. Photo: RNZ / Phil Pennington

Sixty-four properties were tested after the Defence Force discovered chemicals used in firefighting foam had leached into soil and water near two of its air bases.

The foam was banned in 2002.

So far seven properties have been confirmed as having contaminants above acceptable levels of PFOA and PFOS in their drinking water, due to the firefighting foam run-off.

Five are at Ohakea Air Base in the Manawatu, and two at Woodbourne Base in Marlborough.

Three of those properties use the water for the household supply.

The Defence Force said its teams at Woodbourne and Ohakea had been calling locals to let them know the test results revealed yesterday for the first time, and to offer support.

But a family of five right next to Ohakea Air Base said they had been told nothing about the latest test results.

Cindy Tom, who has three children, said they heard nothing yesterday.

"I haven't been told any results at all. We should have been one of the first houses to be notified, we're the closest to the air base," she said.

Her three children aged 17, 14 and eight, can look over their back fence across a paddock to the south side of the air base.

They've been drinking bore water - the repository of the contamination - for years, till Defence first raised the alarm last month, and began delivering bottled water.

"It's the uncertainty that's the killer," said Cindy's partner Marcus Walsh, 42. "The biggest worry is the uncertainty of, 'how bad is it?' "

Authorities had told them "diddly squat" because they were engaged in public relations damage control, he said.

Cindy Tom intended to demand answers today from the Defence team now based at the Ohakea War Memorial Hall.

The Ohakea War Memorial Hall where Defence team is based.

The Ohakea War Memorial Hall where Defence team is based. Photo: RNZ / Phil Pennington

None of the eight-strong team in the hall yesterday would talk, saying all comment had to come from Wellington.

The Defence Force said more calls and visits would be made over coming days.

The Defence Force has also offered rainwater tanks and storage to the people affected by contaminated drinking water.

Watch: PFOA and PFOS explained

Three Ohakea farmers are also demanding more information.

None wanted to be identified, at least until they learned more, which they expect to happen today.

One was told yesterday that the bores they use to water stock have high levels of the contaminants.

Another told RNZ he needed to see the test results himself and talk to his lawyer.

A third said his farm had not been tested at all and he couldn't understand why not.

"I haven't heard anything from the Air Force and we take most of Ohakea's run-off as we are downstream."

Manawatū District mayor Helen Worboys would like to find out who the five local households with contaminated drinking water are.

"They have been advised their drinking water is not up to scratch but they don't know to what extent of what impact it's had on them or likely to have in the future. So until we know that, we can't really analyse how we need to help."

She got only two hours notice of the test results coming out yesterday. However, she said relations with Defence and Ohakea were good.

As for the town water supplies at nearby Sanson and Bulls, Ms Worboys said her infrastructure team was working with Horizons council to ensure these were okay.

The perimeter of Ohakea

The perimeter of Ohakea Photo: RNZ / Phil Pennington

One resident near the air base, who RNZ agreed not to name said her bore had the foam chemicals in it, but below the threshold, so she may have to hold off tapping into it again.

She was not sure whether the manmade chemicals could affect her vegetables.

The Health Ministry said it was taking a precautionary approach of trying to limit further exposure because it was known the chemicals accumulated in the body but the long-term health impacts were not fully understood.

The Defence Force will expand the area it is monitoring for contaminated drinking water at the two air force bases to confirm the extent of the contamination.

No caption

Ian McKelvie Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

One of the properties with contaminated drinking water near the Ohakea airbase is that of former Manawatu mayor and now National MP for Rangitikei, Ian McKelvie.

He said his family brought the property 18 months ago, it was being renovated and he hoped to move in in a couple of months.

He was informed by officials about the contamination yesterday and told Morning Report the real issue was understanding the long term affects on health, but this was one of the unknowns.

"It certainly is an issue ... I'm pleased the Defence Forces are taking it extremely seriously.

"I hope we get a resolution to it very quickly because it causes unease for people.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs