10 Jan 2020

Toxic foam: Defence force's $125k PR contractor spend

4:48 pm on 10 January 2020

This story has been updated to clarify that of the $228k spent on the contractor by the defence force, only $125k was spent on his work related to PFAS.

New Zealand's defence force (NZDF) spent $125,000 on a contractor to handle public relations around its foam contamination problems.

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File photo. Photo: 123RF

Defence bases in several places have contaminated the water and land around them with toxic, long-lasting per-and- poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in now-banned types of foam.

NZDF said they spent $228,000 on the contractor but only $125,000 of the payout for the contractor was for work focused on PFAS, but their primary function was to develop communications to convey information to affected parties, residents and landowners, and to local and central government agencies. They also provided information in response to media inquiries and OIA requests.

The NZDF has spent in total almost $10m handling the foam contaminations, mostly on investigations since it made the contamination public in late 2017.

It brought in the contractor despite already employing 45 people in its PR team, for whom it had a budget of $4.5m in salaries this year - 25 percent more than in 2014.

A New Zealand Defence Force spokesperson said since 2015 the NZDF had committed significant resources to investigating the extent to which PFAS from legacy firefighting foams had reached groundwater on NZDF bases and neighbouring properties.

"In 2015, little was known in New Zealand about PFAS compounds and that knowledge has been evolving," the spokesperson said.

But the defence force has largely wrapped up its investigations and the all-of-government programme on foam contamination was disbanded this year, leaving many questions unanswered about the extent and threat from the pollution.

The Environment Ministry's report Environment Aotearoa 2019 named PFAS among "previously unreported contaminants" that have been found recently in some areas, under a heading 'Trends in land, soil and coastal water in urban areas cannot be assessed'.

"Regional councils keep records of sites where land contamination has been confirmed, but there is currently no integrated dataset available for the national scale," it said.

At one of the worst-hit areas, Manawatū, where foam has turned up in water around Ōhakea, Bulls and Palmerston North, the regional council complained the government's response remained uncertain.

"Our position is very clear - we want the government to fund ongoing monitoring," the council said.

The NZDF said they would continue to engage with local authorities and central government agencies.

New data from the US shows that rainwater in some parts of the country contains PFAS chemicals, though at levels under health guidelines.

In the US, companies such as DuPont have been sued and paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements over PFAS contamination.

In New Zealand, the government has distanced itself from liability, despite the Defence Force being the major polluter.

It agreed to pay for three quarters of the $14.5m cost of a community water scheme at Ōhakea, saying "while the Crown does not accept it has a legal obligation at law, we do accept that in the circumstances it is proper for the Crown to fund the lion's share of the scheme", in a letter from Environment Minister David Parker to the district council.

The district council said it expected Ōhakea air base to pay for a lot of the operational costs of the water scheme.

  • Govt provides $11m for households affected by PFAS contamination
  • Landmark class action over PFAS contamination in Australia announced
  • Groundwater contaminants to continue spreading for 125 years - report
  • Olympic pool worth of toxic foam concentrate to be destroyed
  • Banned firefighting foam found at Port Taranaki, Dunedin Airport