15 Jun 2018

NZDF backtracks, admits using foam later than stated

9:16 am on 15 June 2018

The Defence Force (NZDF) has changed tack, just three days after saying it had stopped using potentially damaging firefighting foam for training at all its bases in 2016.

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Photo: 123RF

The military did not stop in Auckland until a few months ago, and it remains unclear whether it has stopped at all in Taranaki.

The foam, called Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam (AFFF) or fluorine foam, no longer contains the banned chemicals PFOA and PFOS that are extremely longlasting and have been linked to damage to human health and the environment.

But it does contain related compounds called PFASs that research indicates behave in similar ways to PFOS and PFOA.

On Tuesday the Manawatū-Whanganui regional council, Horizons, ordered the Defence Force to stop discharging stormwater with the firefighting foam in it. It said an ongoing investigation had identified several unauthorised discharges of AFFF, including into drains and streams that flow into the Rangitikei River.

The Defence Force (NZDF) responded with a statement saying saying it stopped using the firefighting foams at Ōhakea and at "all of its bases in 2016".

But yesterday, NZDF backtracked.

"Our previous response that we stopped training with foams 'at all of our bases' referred to 'air bases'," it told RNZ.

"We apologise that this was not clear in the initial response.

"With respect to Devonport, firefighting training using AFFF foam ceased at the Sea Safety Training Squadron in late 2017."

Late 2017 is when Defence first told the public that it had known for almost three years that it had contaminated groundwater at its Ōhakea base with foam run-off.

RNZ broadcast on Wednesday that two consultants' reports in mid-to-late 2017 talked about ongoing foam use at Devonport and Ōhakea.

The October 2017 Devonport report said fire training at the Sea Safety Training Squadron on Ngataringa Bay included classes of up to 16 people each discharging a nine-litre extinguisher, or a total of 144 litres of foam.

And at Ōhakea, NZDF said training with the foam has stopped but that's because NZDF shifted it to a commercial fire training facility in Taranaki in early 2016.

It said nothing about this shift in it's statement on Tuesday.

RNZ has asked NZDF if it is still using the foam at the Taranaki facility, but it has not said.

Defence told RNZ yesterday it's 2017 consultants' report "could have been made clearer".

But it was "intended to emphasise that NZDF stopped training on Base Ōhakea in 2016 by moving training to another FTA" or fire training area.

Public health critics and local people in contamination zones have previously expressed frustration over what they see as NZDF and other government agencies downplaying both the extent of the contamination, and the possible health risks and economic impact from it.

Horizons council has said NZDF appeared "unwilling" to share key information with it, and Ōhakea locals have told the government there is a lot of distrust of NZDF.

Meanwhile, NZDF yesterday confirmed it had not been keeping records of its use of foam products.

However, information released under the Official Information Act shows how much it has bought since 2013: 11,600 of concentrate, enough to make about third of a million litres of foam.

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