Many hands on deck to get dross out of Mataura

New Zealand First MP Mark Patterson launching his Mataura dross petition in 2019, flanked by...
New Zealand First MP Mark Patterson launching his Mataura dross petition in 2019, flanked by Labour MP Liz Craig and National Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE
Speaking, as we were last week, of southerners wanting to see a speedy resolution to the many issues surrounding the future of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, the town of Mataura has the most compelling case of all.

Every time it rains, residents in the Southland hamlet, population about 2000, become just a little more anxious.

That is not because they are worried about their washing ... Mataura has a potentially lethal stockpile of chemicals sitting slap bang in the middle of town, and if water gets into it disaster could ensue.

This is not hyperbole: stored in what was once the Mataura paper mill sits almost 10,000 tonnes of aluminium dross, a byproduct of the smelting process at Tiwai Point.

If it gets wet the dross, otherwise known as ouvea premix, releases ammonia, a gas which can kill.

Residents worry it is not a matter of if the dross gets wet, but when: so far this year there has been a serious flood which threatened the mill, a burst sprinkler which saw water pour into the area where the chemical is stored, and just this week a fire elsewhere in the plant led alarmed residents to fear sprinklers elsewhere in the plant might automatically switch on.

Why the chemical is in Mataura is a long and complex story, but to cut it very short the firm which stored it there has gone bust.

No-one, including smelter owners Rio Tinto, want the dross to stay where it is, but equally no-one wants to have such a dangerous substance in their backyard either.

The politics, on the other hand, is very simple. Parties of all stripes are on the residents’ side, and have called for urgent action for the premix to be removed.

That is easier said that done though, as an increasingly exasperated Gore Mayor Tracy Hicks can tell you.

By nature someone who likes to find consensus and compromise, Mr Hicks is still trying to negotiate the dross out of town.

Labour Taieri candidate Ingrid Leary sets up a street corner meeting. PHOTO: FACEBOOK
Labour Taieri candidate Ingrid Leary sets up a street corner meeting. PHOTO: FACEBOOK

Meanwhile, New Zealand First list MP Mark Patterson has taken the high road and got Parliament on the job, presenting written and online petitions with 2299 and 1534 signatures respectively calling for the dross to be removed.

It is hard to disagree with a point Mr Patterson made to the Otago Daily Times this week — if this chemical was sitting in Paritai Dr or Lambton Quay, it would probably have been gone by lunchtime, if not beforehand.

Having seemingly got everyone in town and then some to sign his petition, Mr Patterson lodged it in May, and in just about its final action before Parliament rose for the coming election the environment select committee delivered its interim report.

In most cases when a select committee reports back on a petition, it merely asks that Parliament notes its report, and there the matter rests.

This petition report was different: the committee — which includes southern MPs Liz Craig and Jacqui Dean in its membership — issued a ringing condemnation of the situation.

"We strongly encourage and endorse urgent work toward an agreed solution to ensure the complete removal of the dross from the former paper mill site next to the Mataura River as soon as possible," the report said.

A sign of Ingrid Leary’s hits new heights. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
A sign of Ingrid Leary’s hits new heights. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN

For good measure, the committee did not then shelve Mr Patterson’s petition, but said it would keep it under consideration and ask the next Parliament to reinstate the petition and continue to monitor the situation.

Environment Minister David Parker, whose watch the dross darkens, is another MP not at all pleased that Mataura still houses the ouvea premix.

Having already said that he was considering legal avenues to accelerate the removal of the dross, the former Otago MP (now a list MP) this week confirmed that the Ministry for the Environment was joining proceedings already lodged by the Environmental Defence Society in the Environment Court.

The society is seeking a declaration from the court that New Zealand Aluminium Smelters Ltd must remove the premix on a priority basis.

The minister’s application to join the case emphasises he neither supports or opposes the proceedings, but that he does support the expedited removal of the dross.

The application was filed out of time but granted as it was lodged well before a scheduled judicial settlement conference and because no party had objected.

The minister being added offers no extra legal weight to the EDS case, but it is a symbolically significant gesture which signals the Government wants action and it wants it soon.

While legal action may drag this sorry saga out still further, it may also be the catalyst needed for a solution, which has hitherto eluded all parties, to be found.

Familiar faces

It is not just a small world, but a small campaign trail.

When visiting Cargill Enterprises in Dunedin on Monday, Dunedin-based National list MP Michael Woodhouse ran into his nephew, who works there. Likewise, National Taieri candidate Liam Kernaghan bumped into an old school friend.

Modern campaigning, take 2

After last week’s photo of National leader Judith Collins zooming in to greet the Taieri faithful, here is the Labour Taieri candidate Ingrid Leary’s take on Covid-19-era face to face campaigning — a street corner meeting complete with face masks and QR codes.

Ms Leary also takes some sort of prize for innovative sign placement, this placard on a shed roof meaning pedestrians on the Southern Motorway bridge know she is in the race.

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

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