11 Jun 2021

Defence Force contaminates Waiouru site with heavy metals

11:30 am on 11 June 2021

Land at Waiouru has been contaminated with heavy metals from ammunition, but the Defence Force has not revealed details of other firing ranges.

no caption

Waiouru military training camp. Photo: Google Maps

It has released one lot of tests showing limited contamination at Waiouru military training camp, but not the details about finding 'elevated' levels elsewhere.

Now, the Defence Force (NZDF) is changing how it handles ammunition to cut down the impacts, which in one case includes a staffer getting blood poisoning.

But it has yet to release other investigations that have found "elevated" levels of lead, copper and zinc at other firing or demolition ranges.

Official figures for the decade up to 2012, show the NZDF released 450 tonnes of lead and other heavy metals onto the land and at sea from training and operations. An unspecified amount was retrieved and disposed of.

Asked to update this 45-tonnes-a-year figure for the past decade, Defence the NZDF told RNZ it "does not maintain records of the release of heavy metals in a comprehensive or centralised manner".

Tiny amounts of heavy metal can be toxic to plant or animal life, or humans. They often travel in waterways and accumulate at the coast.

Newly released documents show a civilian staffer who worked destroying ammunition got lead blood poisoning in 2013.

This sparked an investigation, "enhanced safety measures" to reduce staff exposure and the NZDF stopped using that type of incinerator.

In 2020 it bought two new ammunition combustion systems, for almost $1m.

Eight years on from the blood poisoning, it is still working on:

  • A way of disposing of the hazardous waste produced by burning used ammunition
  • Maintenance and environmental management plans for ammunition disposal sites
  • An environmental review to identify what heavy metals or hazardous chemicals the ammunition contains

This review is going on alongside work to improve ammunition supply contracts so that the NZDF will know just what it is getting.

Sites with contaminated soil

The NZDF's annual report last year said 22 sites with contaminated soil had been looked at.

Heavy metals are not mentioned. The cost of remediating the sites - evacuating them and disposing of half the soil - is included in a $28 million adjustment made to the value of the contaminated land and buildings after a 2019 valuation.

This costing "does not constitute a commitment or a provision for remediation", the annual report said.

This valuation, done by consultants WSP, increased the value of the Defence estate overall by $239m.

Defence's Environmental Policy says historic activities and disposal methods may have contaminated "a number of NZDF sites".

"Depending on the nature of the contamination, it may present a potential risk to human health and ecological processes.

"Contamination may also result in claims for damages from affected parties or lowering the potential market value of surplus NZDF sites."

Defence two years ago set up a new job of Contamination Programme Manager. RNZ is asking why.

The NZDF has been grappling since 2017 with contamination from a class of chemicals called PFASs, found in firefighting foam. Its annual report said its liability for PFAS in soil and water "is not possible to quantify".

Waiouru 'potential risk'

The heavy metal investigation at Waiouru took soil and water samples at four sites.

At one - an old tank, called "1200 Feature", a training target for 30 years - it found lead that exceeded human health guidelines.

This was a "potential risk to human health, except "the potential for human contact with these soils is limited", the study said.

If land use changed, another look should be taken. Investigators found no risk to downstream waterways.

However, the study also said: "The key metals of concern ... are lead, copper and zinc (note that these elements have been found to be elevated at other NZDF firing and/or demolition ranges)."

RNZ has asked the NZDF to release those earlier studies.

But it already rejected a request for results from all other investigations into heavy metal contamination, saying this would be too much work.

"A large number of investigation documents have been prepared over a long period of time, and each would require individual review to determine its relevance."

Blood poisoning

The person who got blood poisoning in 2013 was the source of the only complaint or claim over heavy metal, the NZDF said.

Other personnel were tested and no other elevated levels found.

Routine blood testing was instituted, it said.

Historical contamination

Heavy metals can persist in the soil and water for decades, and spread.

More than 100 sites that might still be contaminated from ammunition depots, and firing ranges dating back to the World War II, were identified in Waikato in a 2011 study for the regional council.

The extent of ammo dumps and old military shells/planes after World War II in Waikato.

The extent of ammo dumps and old military shells/planes after World War II in Waikato. Photo: NZDF

This included 22 grenade ranges and an aircraft bombing range.

"Most of these sites are unidentified and the presence of contamination discovered accidentally," the study said.

"There is potential for a greater number of sites in close proximity to major cities."

Most of the sites routinely monitored countrywide in recent years had concentrations of lead, cadmium, copper, and zinc below toxic guideline levels.

However, there were spikes in zinc - a danger to marine life - at multiple sites in the three main cities.