Fears of waste spill at southern patch of paradise

Alan and Deen McKay have been fighting Southland District Council over an eroding road and...
Alan and Deen McKay have been fighting Southland District Council over an eroding road and adjacent dump site in Colac Bay. Photo: LDR / Matthew Rosenberg
A group of residents living on a rugged patch of coastline at the bottom of the South Island are worried about the future of their crumbling scenic road.

Furthermore, concerns are mounting over the ecological impact of a potentially toxic dump site located directly behind the road, just meters from the ocean.

Colac Bay is a small town and popular surf spot 30km west of Invercargill. It’s home to about 60 permanent residents with a burgeoning summer population.

But those who call the place home year-round have more to worry about than their surf break getting overcrowded.

Concerned residents say their neglected coastal road is just one big storm away from triggering an ecological nightmare.

A 60-year-old dump site, which council admit they don’t know the contents of, is nestled right next to a disintegrating road.

Resident Kevin Mulqueen has been living in the region for 40 years and doesn’t mince his words.

“The dump is an issue. We don’t want another Fox River,” he says, referring to the Fox Glacier landfill which was ripped open by floods in March 2019.

That disaster that cost $500,000 to remedy, plus thousands of hours of volunteer time.

Kevin Mulqueen leans against a sign he attached to the fence of his Colac Bay home. Photo: LDR /...
Kevin Mulqueen leans against a sign he attached to the fence of his Colac Bay home. Photo: LDR / Matthew Rosenberg

Similar sentiments are echoed by Alan McKay who lives on a hill overlooking Colac Bay, saying his doorstep is home to blue cod, whales and Hector's dolphins.

In his patch of paradise, he and wife Deen describe the idyllic beach as one of the prettiest views in Southland. It’s the safest swimming area east of Haast, they say.

But a walk along the stony shoreline proves that something isn’t quite right.

Large rocks that line Colac Foreshore Rd protect against the ocean, but fizzle out where it appears to matter most - right in front of the old dumping site.

Council says a report received from NIWA suggested rocks positioned at that point would create more water disturbance.

At opposite ends of Colac Foreshore Rd, concrete blocks now barricade against traffic that once passed through. The tarseal beyond that point has crumbled away, revealing loose stones dropping off to shingely beach below.

“We want the road reopened, that’s the goal. But the primary focus is fixing the dump situation,” Deen says.

She says residents used to take gravel from the site, dump their refuse, then backfill.

The old tip has since been returned to Ōraka Aparima Rūnaka, and regenerated with shrubs.

But the issue remains: nobody knows what’s been put into it.

The trio share the same fear: that erosion will eventually cut through what’s left of the road and wash toxic waste out to sea.

“The dump site has been here 60 odd years, as long as I’ve been here,” Alan says.

“In four or five years, that’ll be going out to sea.”

So why hasn’t anything been done to secure it?

Vehicle access to the road has been blocked for about five years. Photo: LDR / Matthew Rosenberg
Vehicle access to the road has been blocked for about five years. Photo: LDR / Matthew Rosenberg
The trio, who form part of the Colac Bay Erosion Committee, are asking the same question.

They say they gave Southland District Mayor Gary Tong the tour, but he lost enthusiasm several years ago.

A spokesperson for Southland District Council says that’s not the case.

“Mayor Tong has been following the issue closely and will continue to do so.”

The group also claim one of the issues is a lack of geothermal netting - a protective layer that was placed under the large rocks forming protection against the ocean along along the road.

The netting only went so far, and so did the rocks, some of which came from the McKay’s family farm and were transported to the beach with their help.

Now they’re worried one freak storm could blow the whole thing open.

Speaking from Wellington via a video feed on Wednesday, Cr Paul Duffy highlighted the issue of Colac Bay at Southland District Council’s Long Term Plan meeting.

The room went silent.

SDC group manager of services and assets Matt Russell was the first to speak, saying a sum of $150,000 had been put aside to do a district wide assessment of retired landfills, which would include Colac Bay.

That wouldn’t happen until year three of the plan however, and with 45 - 50 landfills in the region, Duffy wasn’t satisfied.

“We need to make the investigation of that one [Colac] a priority,” he said.

Csr Karyn Owen agreed, saying the site had eroded one meter in 18 months.

“Year three we’re going to be looking at a potential disaster,” Owen says.

According to a statement released by Southland District Council, the site was formerly a gravel pit for roading material but ended up becoming a Southland County Council rubbish tip.

Council say it do not know what is contained within the site.

- Matthew Rosenberg

matthew.rosenberg@odt.co.nz

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