20 Feb 2020

Confusing handling of a chemical spill led to 'rising hysteria'

7:56 pm on 20 February 2020

The management of a dangerous chemical spill in Hawera yesterday is being heavily criticised.

Silver Fern Farms facility at Hawera,

The Silver Fern Farms facility at Hawera. Photo: Google Maps

Three staff members of a Silver Fern Farms meat processing plant required hospital treatment yesterday after a faulty valve caused the ammonia spill.

A South Taranaki iwi leader says emergency alerts that followed the spill - one of which screeched like a tsunami warning - combined with a lack of information about the wellbeing of staff caused alarm among their loved ones.

Emergency services were alerted at about 4pm and at about 5.30pm put out a warning - piggy-backing on the national emergency mobile alert system.

It warned people to stay indoors and immediately shut windows and doors and turn off air conditioning units, because there had been a gas leak at the plant.

It went onto say a one kilometre cordon had been put in place around the facility.

Debbie Ngarewa Packer

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer Photo: Supplied

Ngati Ruanui leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said that was not the only alert locals got.

"There was a second alarm. It was one that comes on your cellphone that goes off sort of like a missing cellphone kind of shriek which created quite huge alarm and huge concern."

Ngarewa-Packer said her iwi office began fielding calls from people concerned about family members on the site.

Because the alerts came via the mobile system she contacted the South Taranaki District Council, but was told a Civil Defence response had not been activated.

Ngarewa-Packer said it was very confusing.

"Parents were going to the police and waiting outside [the plant]. They were getting messages in to walk off the job, but they weren't allowed to. So I guess there was quite a rising hysteria around the messaging and then no communication at all."

Taranaki Civil Defence group controller Craig Campbell-Smart said the incident did not meet the threshold for a Civil Defence emergency.

He said Fire and Emergency - which was an authorised user of the national mobile alert system - put out the warnings but its messaging could have been better.

"There were some use issues of the system that were picked up that have been fed up to the national agency and to Fire and Emergency.

"So I completely understand why there is a perception that Civil Defence issued the alert because it is the use of a national system but in this instance it was FENZ leading and issuing that alert."

Campbell-Smart did not elaborate on what those "use issues" were.

And he acknowledged Civil Defence probably muddied the waters further by issuing its own advice on the spill via its Facebook page.

In terms of communication with the families of Silver Ferns Farms staff - he put that back on the company.

"It's for them to consider how they would communicate back to their workers' loved ones around their wellbeing.

"I completely understand the concern of those family members and the detail of who that could be done better I think will come out through the various debriefs that should be happening from this event."

Silver Fern Farms declined an interview.

In a statement, it said its Emergency Response Team reacted immediately to the ammonia leak and evacuated staff to safe areas and called emergency services.

The company said Fire and Emergency then took control over the movement of people both in and out of the site.

Silver Fern Farms did not respond to questions about its communication to staff members' families.

Fire and Emergency also turned down an interview.

In an email, it said at about 5.40pm a decision was made to issue an alert to nearby residents, but due to an error it wasn't sent until 8.40pm, not long before the all clear was given between 9pm and 10pm.

Fire and Emergency says the messages were precautionary only and there was no immediate risk to the public.

It apologised for any confusion.

Ngarewa-Packer said that would be of little comfort to whanau of Silver Fern Farms staff.

"They were all told to go inside and turn the air conditioning off and stay out of a kilometre radius [from the plant] so of course when you see the staff sitting outside on a carpark at the site, 50 metres away, you are going to sit there and be concerned because it contradicts what the Civil Defence message is saying."

Ngarewa-Packer called for a meeting of the Taranaki Regional Council, South Taranaki District Council and Silver Ferns Farm to discuss what happened and how families could be better supported in the future.

Silver Fern Farms began the process of safely restarting the plant at midday on Thursday.

Its injured staff members were discharged from hospital without being required to stay overnight.