Andy Russell has stopped drinking the water on tap at his farm shed near Ōhakea. Now he's wondering whether he should even give it to his dogs.

Russell has farmed deer on 100ha bordering Ōhakea Airforce Base for 23 years. In December last year residents were told the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) wanted to test their water for the presence of per and poly fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Water from shallow bores was found to have PFAS, an ingredient in firefighting foams once used at the base. Eight residents use that water for drinking, usually only in summer when their rainwater tanks run dry.

They were told to stop drinking it and provided with an alternative. Since then eight households have had their contaminated concrete water tanks replaced with plastic ones.

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There are about 60 households in the affected area that spreads 3.5km south and west of the base. They are in limbo, while authorities work out whether there is really a problem, and how big it is.

Russell doesn't think PFAS is going to prove to be "the new DDT" and cause widespread alarm.

"Not at these lowish levels. But we don't know the long-term health effects and unfortunately we are all exposed to it," he said.

The land around the base spreads out wide, flat and green. There aren't many houses. Residents there formed the Ōhakea Contaminated Water Committee to respond to the situation.

Rangitīkei MP Ian McKelvie, who will move into a house on 70ha in a couple of weeks, asked Russell to chair it.

The residents live in a possibly toxic environment, but are being assured there is no immediate danger.

Massey University Professor Benoit Guieysse, who has worked with similar chemicals, says the threat is real.

"These are serious contaminants that can cause a real problem. There is evidence for this and reasons to be concerned."

Russell is among 13 who intend to get their blood tested for PFAS, now that they have that possibility. He is collecting information about the problem substances.

"PFAS is a swear word around here," he said.

The NZDF has smaller contaminated sites at Woodbourne and Whenuapai. Ōhakea is the biggest, and its residents have had plenty of attention from the authorities.

The Environment Ministry, Ministry for Primary Industries, NZDF, Manawatū District Council and Rural Support Trust representatives have all come to their meetings. Environment Minister David Parker joined a group for a cup of tea.

An All of Government (AoG) Programme was started, and residents get weekly emails on its progress. The NZDF begins a fourth round of testing around Ōhakea soon.

A person suits up to test water for PFAS at an Ōhakea property. Photo / supplied
A person suits up to test water for PFAS at an Ōhakea property. Photo / supplied

"They probably think that that's the end of it, but this isn't going to go away tomorrow. This is a long-term thing. There has to be some form of fix," Russell said.

As a start, Government has given the district council $50,000 for a study into a water scheme for affected residents. It will probably draw water from a deep bore below the contamination.

If that doesn't happen quickly farmers like Russell will be tempted to put down their own deep bores, and not share the water. He's hoping it will happen fast.

"The frustration is these things take so long, but when you are using taxpayer money things have to be done properly," he said.

If residents don't get help they will take legal action. For now they are happy with a simpler procedure for getting blood tests and an assurance safe water will be provided.

Kay Simpson's family grew up swimming in a pond that is so highly contaminated that it is now off-limits. She said she would only talk about the family's situation if they are not satisfied with Government's response.

"We need to give them a chance to make things right."

As well as changing their drinking water some in the area have been advised to limit the amount of food they eat off their land. The watercress in drains could be contaminated.

Drains near the Ōhakea Airforce Base are contaminated with PFAS. Photo / Stuart Munro
Drains near the Ōhakea Airforce Base are contaminated with PFAS. Photo / Stuart Munro

But food from the land is generally okay - the milk has very low levels of PFAS, venison has been cleared for export, eggs and meat are all right and fruit and vegetables only take up low levels of PFAS.

Contaminated water shouldn't be used for irrigation, but there is only one irrigated farm in the area and it uses water from a deep bore.

What's uncertain is whether the contamination is continuing. The NZDF believes the firefighting foams it now uses have very low levels of PFAS.

If PFAS is not being added to the environment any contamination will be diluted over time, and may be no problem. If it continues being added the contaminated area will grow.

It is alarmingly close to the relatively pristine Rangitīkei River.

Low levels of PFAS found in the Bulls water supply have not come from Ōhakea. Horizons Regional Council is getting testing done, to find out where they did come from. Rangitīkei District Council considered sending a sample overseas to get more sophisticated testing done, but found that wouldn't help.

Ōhakea residents are putting their trust in the Government response, but have less trust in the NZDF.

It's not an ordinary neighbour, the kind they can chat to over the fence. Communication from it tends to be impersonal, and from a distant source.

"They think differently from what the rest of us do around here. People have lost a lot of trust. If someone from Defence says something that's a bit arrogant or whatever, people do fire up," Russell said.

He's lucky, because he and his wife live 9km away at Clydesdale. The contamination has more psychological effect on people who live among it.

What hasn't been tested yet, is how it could affect the value of land.

"At the moment someone would buy this farm, but they would want a pretty good discount," Russell said.

GOVERNMENT PFAS PROGRAMME SPOKESMAN SAYS:
+ human health is a priority
+ avoiding contaminated water is the cautious approach
+ Government is taking this seriously
+ site testing is going on nationwide
+ the programme is keeping track of international research
+ luckily New Zealand only has tiny amounts of PFAS
+ Australian research is useful, especially www.health.gov.au/pfas

PFAS
+ per and poly fluoroalkyl substances
+ about 3000 different types
+ manmade
+ used in products that resist oils and stains
+ persistent organic pollutants, similar to DDT or PCBs
+ accumulate in soils and living tissue
+ toxicity is chronic and develops over time
+ experiments done on animals show potential to cause cancer
+ most people have small amounts in their system
+ no consistent evidence of human health effects from long-term exposure
+ worldwide concern about contaminant effect, since the 1990s

NEW ZEALAND DEFENCE FORCE SAYS
+ it is having tests done around Ohakea Airforce Base
+ testing is also being done at site of 1996 Skyhawk crash near Kakariki
+ current firefighting foam has low levels of PFAS
+ it no longer does firefighting training at Ohakea

HORIZONS REGIONAL COUNCIL SAYS
+ it is investigating the contamination, and could prosecute
+ it is testing to find source of low levels of PFAS in the Bulls water supply