4 Nov 2020

Waikato dump fire burning since August: Locals report health problems

2:21 pm on 4 November 2020

A long-burning, foul-smelling underground fire at a Waikato rubbish dump has forced the creation of a rare multi-agency group.

Bill Rosoman wants officials to listen to locals about the fire at Puke Coal Landfill.

Bill Rosoman wants officials to listen to locals about the fire at Puke Coal Landfill. Photo: Supplied

But the group of council and central government officials is not sure what to do to put out the fire.

Locals at Pukemiro have been complaining since the fire began in August of sore throats, headaches, and nausea, as well as about official inaction and still face a major hurdle getting rid of the underground flames.

Fire and Emergency (FENZ) is not sure if it can even manage that, according to the Waikato Regional Council.

Hoses failed in August, when the flames were above the surface, and now they have moved underground.

"It's not a simple case of just flooding the area," said the council's Brent Sinclair, who heads the multi-agency group that includes FENZ, the district council, DHB, Environmental Protection Authority and ministries of health and environment.

Local man Bill Rosoman sees it in simple terms: "The only way I see it is he's really got to get in there, close it down, so they can deal with the fire."

Sinclair responded that it was complex.

"The challenge is the ability to get onto that property and then to be able to undertake whatever work would be needed to be able to put that fire out," he said.

FENZ, for instance, believed it did not have the authority to go back on the property at Puke Coal Landfill, Sinclair said - and neither did any of the other agencies in the group, which had been busy checking their legal powers.

"It's very complex. The legislation doesn't give me the ability to go on and shut a property down.

"I can't physically stop them from doing something if they're determined to do so."

The onus was on the landowner, Sinclair said.

Owner and landfill operator John Campbell did not respond to RNZ's requests for comment.

'We could not hack the odour' - local resident

The multi-agency officials meet with locals for the first time on Wednesday night, at the Pukemiro school hall.

Peggy Molleman will be there.

She slept with her family in their car to escape the worst night of smoke coming from the landfill 15km west of Huntly. It is also known as the Rotowaro C&D Landfill.

"We could not hack the odour, the stench anymore," she said.

"We packed our sleeping bags, me, my husband, Michael and my son, Anthony.

"We slept on the side of Rotowaro Road."

It was a toxic plastic smell that brought her "to the point of vomiting" and was so bad at night it had woken them up at times, she said.

"We've actually got footage of it crawling along the valley."

Molleman said she wants action.

"I'm disgusted with the whole system... they tried to downplay the whole thing. I feel marginalised and that's the worst thing."

Rosoman said he had been hounding the councils.

"They've been tossing it between the agencies, saying, 'It's not my job, it's not my job'.

"That's why I decided a week ago to get on the phone to ring everybody to give them clear messages - 'We can't do this anymore, you know, 200 people are suffering,'" Rosoman said.

"Finally, we've got them talking... finally we're getting some action."

According to Sinclair, though, the officials are mostly coming to Wednesday night's meeting to listen to locals.

It took them 10 weeks to decide on setting up the inter-agency group; Sinclair said it was coincidental this happened at the same time Rosoman was agitating strongly.

It was unclear what laws could be leveraged, despite the agencies talking about what to do since August, Sinclair said - perhaps the Health Act, which was one reason health experts were on the group, he added.

Rosoman was in no doubt.

"Section 29 of the Health Act gives them strong powers to walk up there, close it down, stop the fire," he said.

A public health risk assessment has not been done in the intervening weeks since August.

The public health unit of the Waikato District Health Board said it was undertaking one now.

Air and water testing

Some action has been taken by the regional and district councils.

Air and water testing has been carried out at Pukemiro and nearby Glen Afton and an abatement notice issued weeks ago to John Campbell to stop discharging smoke.

"He is not complying with his abatement notice," Brent Sinclair said.

This was part of an investigation into whether Campbell was in breach of the Resource Management Act, and an investigation into allegations of dumping of illegal waste at Puke Coal Landfill, he said.

The water tests had not revealed any specific or immediate concerns related to the fire, the public health unit said.

It was getting extra expert advice on what other water testing might be useful. Air testing results had yet to come through from the Waikato Regional Council.

"A hazardous substances incident report has not been filed at this point," the public health unit said in a statement.

Sinclair said concern for the community's health had been the priority all along.

"It's very, very rare... very unusual to see so many agencies having to work together to try to resolve a problem on an individual landowner's property, because that landowner is not taking their responsibilities.

"The community is at the centre of all of our collective efforts to find a resolution."

Bill Rosoman has done his own informal health survey. Out of 36 locals, 90 percent noted a "foul smell", three quarters had had headaces, two thirds upset stomachs or upset sleep, and almost half noted a financial impact from coping with the smoke.

The landfill operation has been controversial for years, with an application to expand it to take municipal waste in 2013 receiving a lot of submissions opposed.

The go-ahead was given, but conditions in the consent were never met, so it was only meant to take clean construction and demolition waste, Sinclair said.

John Campbell runs the adjacent mining operation Puke Coal.

It is in receivership and was fined on Health and Safety charges three months ago, after a worker was injured.

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