Landfill pollution that has washed along 100km of West Coast coastline could contain toxic chemicals, and groups helping clean it up say the government needs to respond.
The obsolete Fox River landfill began to spill its contents into floodwater during torrential rain on 26 and 27 March that also led to a state of emergency, roads and bridges washed out, and a woman's death in Westland.
Rubbish from the landfill has been found as far as 70km south of the Fox River mouth and 30km north, and washed upstream into rivers.
Westland District Council said contractors had today diverted the Fox River, meaning rubbish was no longer spilling into it, but West Coast locals say it could be weeks before they see their beaches clean again
The landfill dates back at least as far as the 1950s, West Coast Tai Poutini Conservation Board Chair Keith Morfett said.
"Nobody really knows what's in that old dump, but most rural landfills will contain agricultural chemicals. People had a really different attitude to toxic chemicals then than they do now," he said.
"So there's some real nasties in this old dump - we're looking at a real disaster here."
The pollution could affect a wide range of vulnerable ecosystems and wildlife, and could be hazardous for voluneers helping with the cleanup, he said.
It was heartbreaking as it affected a number of "pristine" areas, and wildlife reserves.
"Potentially we've got ... marine mammals being affected, Hector's dolphins, other dolphins, seals, all sort of sea birds, including penguins, and kiwi living in the connected adjacent bush."
"So the impact is colossal," he said.
Environmental groups, including Forest and Bird, and the West Coast Conservation Board said it could be New Zealand's worst environmental disaster since the Rena oil spill in 2011.
Students from Franz Josef Glacier School were among those picking rubbish at Ōkārito Beach this morning, and deputy principal Sarah Gregory said rubbish was continually washing back onto the beach, making it clear the cleanup had only just begun.
"I think people are going to have to be out there every day for like, a long time, to try and solve the problem.
Minister of Conservation and Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage was scheduled to meet with residents today, and mayors tomorrow.
Groups of volunteers are working at the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, Waiau Glacier Marine Reserve and Okarito Mataitai Reserve, including teams being airlifted to remote locations each day.
Volunteer response coordinator Mike Bilodeau said experts who worked on the Rena oil spill had been advising the group.
Volunteers were taking note where they came across dead wildlife or substances that could be toxic and instructed to leave them where they were, he said.
Asbestos and concerning liquids had been found among the waste, he said, and the old landfill needed to be urgently contained to stop further material leaking out.
"Unfortunately I think it's only a matter of time before we start finding injured and dead wildlife and marine wildlife around. We'll take all the help we can get."
Mr Bilodeau said they would like to hear from anyone with specialist expertise that could help.
"There's been a struggle for resource ... so a little bit more financial support and resource support would be fantastic, but in general council's response, DOC's response, and especially the response of the local people down here have been really good."
Mr Morfett said there had been a "fantastic" number of volunteers, working really hard, but the official response had been muted among the other flooding emergencies.
"If this event was a standalone event ... it's been lumped into the recovery, the emergency management has distracted a little. Maybe if it was a standalone event maybe you would have had more support, but they've got so much on their plate.
"Everybody appreciates the efforts the Westland District Council are putting in, but the council are coping with a huge flood event - we've lost bridges ... many roads are still closed, a woman was killed in the flood - so the Westland District Council have initially really struggled."
Mr Morfett said central government should have offered assistance to assess what hazardous materials were leaking out of the landfill, and to provide more resources to the clean up, and he hoped this still might happen.
A Local Government New Zealand report shows there are 110 closed landfills around the country that could be exposed with sea level rise.
Forest and Bird says the Ministry for the Environment needs to take preventative action.