Toxic foam: Defence Force fails to inform regional council

6:52 pm on 1 June 2018

New Zealand Defence Force is blocking a regional council from getting vital information it needs to investigate toxic firefighting foam contamination in its water supply.

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Photo: 123RF

Horizons Regional Council covers the area from Ruapehu to Horewhenua. It asked NZDF weeks ago for modelling about groundwater movements under the contaminated Ohakea airbase - it received nothing. The Ministry for the Environment also refused its plea for help trying to finding out how drinking water in Bulls was contaminated with low levels of foam chemicals, PFAS.

Horizons natural resources manager Jon Roygard said NZDF had not been forthcoming with information.

"On a number of occasions we've been told that information will come through to us, and then at later dates we've been told that we will not get that information."

Dr Roygard said only central government had the expertise to map the extent of contamination.

A spokesperson for the All of Government Programme on PFAS said the complete databse of test results had been shared with Horizons, both on April 17 and more upcoming on June 6.

"NZDF's technical consultants advise that it is highly unlikely that the PFAS detected in Bulls originated from Ohakea as it would be going against the ground water flow," the spokesperson said.

"To support Rangitikei District Council and Horizons Regional Council to determine possible sources of PFAS in the Bulls water supply, NZDF undertook to investigate the site of a Skyhawk aircraft crash that occurred in 1996."

Horizons said that Skyhawk investigation was not broad enough.

One family tested had 'very high' levels of PFAS in blood

Environment Minister David Parker released a letter to RNZ written to him in early May by Ohakea's water contamination committee which said there was "a widespread feeling of distrust about how the defence force is handling the testing programme".

One local family's blood had tested "very high" for PFAS, the committee said.

When, at Horizons' insistence, tests were done of Bulls water bores in March it found low level contamination. NZDF said this was "highly unlikely" to have come from Ohakea.

Defence predicted contamination caused by firefighting training at its Ohakea airbase would not spread under the Rangitikei River.

Dr Royard said it was important to find the source.

"Are there other bores that aren't being predicted to have any contamination that we need to find and let people know in the event they may be using those?"

Councillors have resolved to spend up to $100,000 on their own investigation, while pushing for central government to take over or at least compensate ratepayers.

Horizons chair Bruce Gordon labelled the situation "appalling" and "disgusting".

"Now the ratepayers are being asked to stump up doing the investigation about where this contaminant came from, picking up the bill for an entity [NZDF] that doesn't pay rates to our region."

The council will write to NZDF and the ministry calling on them to intervene. RNZ approached both but they declined to be interviewed.

Horizons said NZDF had not given any plans on how it would clean up Ohakea.

This dispute comes the same week as a Cabinet paper was released which said the Ministry for the Environment was best placed to lead the nationwide foam investigation "as it has a broad mandate, which encompasses issues including human health and contaminated land, and it has strong relationships with local government".

A new national working group on the PFAS investigation, that involves councils, has been set up. Local Government New Zealand has appointed Sarah Gardner, head of Otago Regional Council, to liaise with central government. She was not available for comment.

*Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said that the 1996 Skyhawk crash site was the likely source of the contamination. That was an incorrect paraphrasing of an All of Government programme spokesperson's statement and the story has now been updated.

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