25 Feb 2020

Mataura toxic waste: Petition urges government to step in

2:32 pm on 25 February 2020

The government must do whatever it takes to move about 10,000 tonnes of hazardous waste from Mataura to Tiwa Point, a petition launched by NZ First MP Mark Patterson says.

Southland locals protest about the toxic aluminium dross stored around Invercargill and Mataura

Southland locals protest about the toxic aluminium dross stored around Invercargill and Mataura. Photo: Faceboon / Sort out the Dross group

The ouvea premix waste product from the smelter at Tiwai Point is stored in a disused paper mill in Mataura which came under threat from floodwaters this month.

The aluminium dross can produce toxic ammonia gas when wet, and many in the town suspect the widespread evacuations during the flood were at least partly due to the threat of the waste.

Patterson started the petition with support from other local MPs. He said it would be going door-to-door in the Gore District from today and people could also sign it online.

Locals were fed up, Patterson said.

"This is just another avenue to keep the pressure on. There's high-level discussions going on but this is a vehicle for the community to continue to pressure the powers that be."

"The danger is once the floodwaters recede so does the urgency to act, and the community is not of a mind to wait. They've waited long enough, their patience has run out and this is another avenue for them to push that cause."

Many in the community were already outraged that the dross was being stored in Mataura.

Other amounts were stored at other locations around Southland.

Patterson said Rio Tinto, the majority owner of the smelter, needed to step up and clean up its mess.

"The petition calls upon the government to pressure Rio Tinto in whatever means it can, so we're certainly not letting Rio off this. This is their moral responsibility, as much as anything, and they've got to own up to that."

Gore District Mayor Tracy Hicks agreed and said Tiwai Point was the right place for the waste.

"I know there's been a number of ideas floated about relocating it to other places in Southland that might be appropriate, but I think Tiwai Point is the appropriate place," he said.

"There's a responsibility on behalf of Rio Tinto to house it there and having this petition keeps it in people's minds and keeps it up front."

Following the flood, Gore District Council chief executive Steve Parry said the council and New Zealand Aluminium Smelters had reached a handshake deal on moving the ouvea premix to Tiwai Point.

Days later Parry said Rio Tinto had vetoed the agreement and reneged on the plan.

Hicks described Rio Tinto's silence on the matter since the flooding as "disappointing, to put it mildly".

Last year local councils, Rio Tinto and the government reached a $4 million deal to process the waste over a six-year period.

This month's flooding showed that was not fast enough, Hicks said.

"Not often does this happen, but we've got government, we've got local government across the province and we've got community support across the province saying 'we want this stuff removed and we want it back to where it should be' and we need government assistance in a very strong way to bring that about.

"I do give them [Rio Tinto] credit where credit's due and that is they've come to the party and been part of the agreement we put together some time ago. But the clear and present threat we saw in Mataura in recent weeks with that flooding has raised the stakes and we need to make it go a lot faster than it currently is and there's been a bit of resistance from Rio to allow that to happen and we need to use all the levers we've got to make sure that changes."

So far more than 700 people had signed the online petition.

Patterson is set to present it to the Environment Select Committee after it closes on 24 March.

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