Taxpayers may pick up the tab towards cleaning a site containing hazardous waste in Northland that experts estimate will cost more than $3 million after owners failed to take responsibility for the mess.
Whangārei District Council (WDC), Northland Regional Council, WorkSafe, Ministry of Environment, and the Environmental Protection Agency— are sharing the cost of cleaning up the site at Allis Bloy Pl in Ruakākā where about 800,000 litres of chemicals and 400,000 litres of bund water are stored.
They were forced to take on the task after site operators Sustainable Solvents Ltd, Solvent Services NZ Ltd and Sustainable Solvents Group Ltd failed to comply with an Environment Court order to clean up the site.
The district council awarded a tender to specialist waste management company InterGroup Ltd to evaluate the hazardous waste on site and to repackage the solvents for safe transport to a disposal or recycling facility.
The chemicals and other waste will be removed by July when a more detailed assessment of the soil contamination will ascertain what has to be done to remediate the soil and what the land can then be used for.
WDC general manager infrastructure Simon Weston said about $3m would be spent removing and testing the waste materials and tenders and funding beyond the work InterGroup was contracted for, such as soil testing, were still to be worked out.
"The council will be seeking to recover those costs from the site operators."
But Weston said it was "too early to know" whether the owners would reimburse the money.
"It will be determined by the courts."
The media was yesterday given a tour of the fully fenced site where about 4000 drums and containers with paint, chlorinated and non-chlorinated solvents like toluene and xylene are stored.
Work began in November to assess the site and make it safe.
Contaminated stormwater was taken to disposal facility in Auckland and the chemicals were prepared for removal.
Weston said those who where issued consents to store hazardous waste needed to comply. Otherwise, public agencies were often "the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff".
"We have increased our compliance team to four so we can inspect more operations more often.
"The reality is that our way of living requires hazardous activities and we have a number of potentially dangerous activities throughout our community," he said.
Weston said WDC has also audited all its consents and set up a regular inspection regimen for higher risk ones or those with ongoing effects.
Regional council (NRC) group manager regulatory services Colin Dall said preliminary sampling and testing as part of the council's investigation into alleged dumping of chemicals at the site found that chlorinated solvents and industrial chemicals used in printing and painting had contaminated land and groundwater.
However, he said there was no risk to nearby water supply bores as none were downstream or close to the site.
Consultant GHD is providing management, surveillance and quality assurance to WDC for the clean-up and Intergroup is doing the physical work.
Some of the solvents or waste will be processed in Christchurch and some in Australia.
Only the bund water will be treated at InterGroup's Auckland facility.
All substances, including each container, will be tracked to confirm they are properly managed and taken to the correct facility and disposed of.
Intergroup has been working with multiple organisations to ensure all environmental and physical safety guidelines are followed in identifying, handling, moving and disposal of the chemicals.
Weston said the site has been assessed as low-risk of fire, but it would have a high impact if one broke out.
In December 2018, he said WDC arranged fire prevention near the site and in early 2019, NRC and WDC paid for security to monitor the site to ensure public safety.
Vegetation around the chemical storage area is being managed to reduce the effects of grass fires should one break out, he said.
An Emergency Response Plan (ERP) for the project, reveiwed by Fire and Emergency New Zealand, addresses fire at length.
The procedures for all of the tasks are written with the risk of fire in mind.