Court action brings hope to Mataura residents of toxic waste dispute resolution

7:50 am on 1 October 2020

There is renewed hope Mataura may finally be freed of the burden of more than 10,000 tonnes of potentially toxic waste.

Ouvea premix - or dross - is stored in loose bags around Southland.

Ouvea premix - or dross - is stored in loose bags around Southland. Photo: Sort out the Dross facebook page

Court action taken by the Environmental Defence Society against the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter's owners has those in the Southland town finally feeling optimistic.

The so-called ouvea premix - a waste by-product of aluminium production - was moved into the disused papermill in Mataura by a now defunct company without resource consent in 2015.

This year that waste - which releases deadly ammonia gas when it gets wet - has been threatened by flooding and fire, and the people of Mataura want it gone.

Sort Out the Dross action group spokesperson Cherie Chapman said the Environmental Defence Society's court action brought hope to Mataura residents.

"The people of Mataura will be delighted to have that stuff out of there," she said.

"It has been an ongoing stress for them for many years and we are really grateful for the Environmental Defence Society and for the government stepping in and actually putting pressure on to get that stuff out of near the river and out of their town because enough is enough."

New Zealand Aluminium Smelters and Rio Tinto reached an agreement with local authorities and the government in March 2018 to move the waste from Mataura and other sites around Southland over six years.

The Environmental Defence Society (EDS) has sought a ruling from the Environment Court over who ultimately has legal responsibility for removing the ouvea premix from the mill.

When the court action got underway earlier this month, the EDS hoped to get the waste removed by this Christmas.

The judicial settlement conference in the Environment Court continued this week.

Alternate Environment Judge Laurie Newhook issued a minute after this week's hearing, saying the parties are "strongly engaged in urgently speeding up the process".

He set down two further conferences for this month.

Chapman said the people of Mataura deserve to be free of the threat of the waste once and for all, though she was concerned alternative sites might mean the burden was shifted on to other communities.

"I'm concerned ... at their alternative sites, because it should be just going back to Tiwai. I think it's outrageous that Rio Tinto don't just make that offer given they've got their land out there."

Gore District Mayor Tracy Hicks said the agreement reached in 2018 was the best deal that could be done at the time, but he was grateful for the efforts of the EDS to have it removed by the end of this year.

"This has been going on a long time and I'm hesitant to say we're nearing the end, but I'd like to think that is the case and it'd be fantastic if that news does emerge and I'm sure the Mataura people will welcome that."

Mataura Community Board chair Alan Taylor said he was also pleased to hear of the progress being made through the Environment Court.

"It is a huge relief for the community. There's been an awful lot of words spoken about it and they're still working through the process and ... nobody wants it in their community, especially in a built-up community."

The Ministry for the Environment last night could not confirm how much ouvea premix had been removed since the level 4 lockdown ended.

However, in July more than 8500 tonnes remained in the mill.

The case heads back to the Environment Court next week.

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