22 Nov 2020

Harbour Bridge contamination: Review to look into likelihood of health risks at nearby properties

8:24 am on 22 November 2020

The Transport Agency has launched an external review into contamination with heavy metals and hydrocarbons beside the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Auckland's Harbour Bridge during the Covid-19 alert level four lockdown.

Auckland's Harbour Bridge during the Covid-19 alert level four lockdown. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The review will look at if it is "more than likely or not" there are unacceptable health risks at nearby properties.

A Northcote homeowner is dismissing the review as "lip service".

The Kaipātiki Local Board, while "delighted", expressed concerns whether residents would be heard.

The Transport Agency put out the review's terms of reference without consulting locals, despite the board asking for a meeting since September.

This is when RNZ revealed the agency had discovered contamination at Stokes Point a decade ago but chose not to tell residents.

It received multiple recommendations back then to test at nearby properties, but did not do so.

The review's first stage is due to report back to the public early next year, and to the regional regulator Auckland Council.

The council has already asserted there was "no human health risk" from the contaminants found in the soil.

The terms of reference and accompanying letter to residents do not say if locals will get a chance to have input to the review, or if it will consider why locals were not told 10 years ago.

The board's deputy chair, Danielle Grant, said both must happen.

"It should because there are families that have lived in the area for decades, and for their peace of mind, there should be an opportunity for their concerns to be heard."

The review terms do not say if it will consider the lack of regular monitoring for contaminants; tests were done in 2000 and 2010 to support resource consent applications, with one-off testing in 2016 when the public reserve was upgraded.

"The community's health and safety has to be paramount," Grant said.

"And whatever processes need to be put in place to ensure that is the case, then I think that is what we need to be asking for."

The Transport Agency said it had invited residents' queries about the review.

Phil Moore has lived in the area for 22 years.

He accused the agency of "doing the bare minimum".

"It doesn't build trust, does it?

"This is either nothing, or there could be an 'Erin Brockovich' moment.

"But, you know, clarity needs to be established on that."

Erin Brockovich was a Californian whose exposure of polluting by a power company was made into a movie.

The risk handling by the Transport Agency and the council "smacks of living in 1960s", Moore said.

"I work in the oil industry. And I can tell you, we would never play Russian roulette with health and safety.

"If this was a situation on one of our facilities, then there'd be a full investigation, the site would be closed off and everybody would be tested independently."

The review terms do not say if household properties will be tested for the first time or not.

Danielle Grant said that should be up to each homeowner to decide, echoing what the council has said previously.

The review terms do not mention the marine or wider environment, even though Auckland Regional Public Health told the Transport Agency in 2011 it must consider the impacts on these.

"When they were doing the bridge maintenance, the whole area was covered in like a red dust .... it was like a snowfall thickness," said Moore, referring to several years ago, though bridge maintenance carries on year-round.

"So it was a dusting everywhere. And, you know, not only would it have affected the properties, but it would have affected the marine life," he said.

"It's deplorable that an organisation like this is taking this cavalier attitude.

"Maybe everything is found okay - but until they do a proper independent investigation, nobody will know."

The agency said the impact on the harbour was assessed in 2010/11. RNZ has asked it to provide the assessment.

Discharges had been "well below" the thresholds in resource consents, as shown in annual monitoring reports since 2015, provided to RNZ.

In a letter to residents, the agency said that "records show that lead-based paints were not used on exterior surfaces ... at Stokes Point".

Nevertheless, maximum lead level findings in soil rose markedly between 2000 and 2010.

Since improvements to bridge maintenance since 2015, less paintstripping waste was being discharged, it said, adding resource consent conditions were being met.

However, documents in 2011 said consents had been widely breached for the past decade, and that the bridge maintenance contractor was not even aware of the discharge-to-air conditions.

The review would include interviews with maintenance contractor staff and assessment of their records, the agency said.

Zinc levels are very high at the Stokes Pt/Te Onewa Pa reserve, and also at the bridge's south end at Erin Point, where houses are further away.

Zinc is less harmful to humans, though toxic to marine life and to humans at high levels.

Up till 2013, 1.4 tonnes of zinc a year was being discharged at the bridge. That has now been drastically cut back to a few kilograms.

Zinc, along with copper, are at elevated levels in the harbour waters near the bridge.

The Auckland Council 2011 health risk assessment, that it did not make public until recently, adjudged lead and hydrocarbons at levels below any risk; it considered other heavy metals did not need assessing.

The area "is safe for the public to use and enjoy", it said.

The hydrocarbon contamination with cancer-causing BAP is probably from old landfill or footpath material.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs