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Council refers Ministry's decision to withhold "national list" to the Office of the Ombudsman

21 January 2013

An Official Information Request by the Thames-Coromandel District Council (TCDC) to review the National List of Contaminated Sites has been turned down by the Ministry for the Environment.

In 2011, TCDC was told by Ministry and regional council staff that a national list of contaminated sites was being released publically and that the Moanataiari subdivision in Thames was on this 'list'. The Moanataiari project was launched within weeks of this news.

"Our approach at Moanataiari was too hard and too fast, as we have found out now, because we were rushed into it by the threat of this "list" going public before we had a good understanding of the issues - we launched the project and many think we "over-cooked it" and in the end the list never went public!" said Mayor Glenn Leach.

"We should have been more considered and had the time to research the government's brand new soil standards policy first, as we have come to find out a year later, it has serious flaws and is difficult to apply to areas high in mineralisation".

"We want to see the list and we think our residents have a right to see it, let alone the other affected people in New Zealand whose properties are on it also" said Mayor Leach.

Council staff have referred the Ministry's decision to withhold the national list to the Office of the Ombudsman and are also asking the Government for an urgent review of the new National Environmental Standards (NES) for soil.

Read the MfE's letter here.

Read the Letter to the Minister for the Environment about our request to have the NES reviewed.

For more information, please contact Strategic Relations Manager Sam Napia.

Recent correspondence

Read the letters we have received from MfE and WRC and our replies here (located on the left hand side of the page) relating to the Moanataiari project.

We have not received replies to our letters yet.

NES concerns

Our experience with the Moanataiari project has raised for us some serious concerns over the NES.

These concerns include the following:

Standards are overly conservative and can't easily be applied to areas high in natural mineralisation:The Moanataiari project has illustrated the madness in applying overly conservative standards to areas high in mineralisation. The cost-benefit of spending millions of dollars remediating nature doesn't add up.

If we were to apply government policy at Moanataiari we'd have to spend $10-6 million dollars remediating nature to reduce an additional health risk of 0.00136%.

Policy disconnect:There is a significant disconnect between Government policy and the NES. New Zealand Government policy sets the acceptable level of increased risk at 1-in-100,000. But the NES soil contaminant standard for arsenic does not correlate with this government policy.

Disparity with drinking water standard:There is an as yet unreconciled but vast disparity between the drinking water and soil standards for arsenic, the impact of which manifests in our very region. Assuming a 2L-per-day consumption, naturally occurring arsenic in the Hamilton City water supply delivers more than seven times the daily dose of arsenic to Hamilton adults than is obtainable from the remediation target insisted upon by Ministry for the Environment Officials for Moanataiari. But the situation is more concerning than this for children; for children, the arsenic dose from just 1L-per-day of Hamilton water is around twenty times that which is obtainable from the remediation target at Moanataiari. It appears to us that, with regard to arsenic, the threshold for soil is around 33 times more onerous than it is for water. This circumstance will cause avoidable stress and cost to communities up and down the country, beyond Moanataiari, as Ministry for the Environment Officials continue to hold their line with impractical zeal. We believe that that discrepancy must be urgently addressed by the Ministries.

Lack of international peer review:It is not correct that the NES has been internationally peer reviewed, as is commonly understood to be the case. Toxicological draft reports that underpin only one of two NES foundation documents were peer reviewed by two leading international toxicologists. However, the same policy robustness was not extended to the other key document. This inconsistency is not openly discussed and has not been satisfactorily explained.

Lack of coordination between teams:During its development, there were two teams respectively working on the technical and policy aspects of the NES. There is concern that there was insufficient coordination between teams that, for example, may have led to the policy disconnect described above. Enquires to the Ministry for the Environment confirm that there exists no minutes or similar documentation that would document adequate coordination between the teams.

The NES is based on science that should have been better:TCDC staff attended a meeting on 15 December 2011 that included Ministry for the Environment Officials and their technical advisor. When challenged in the meeting over the NES assumption of 100% bioavailability, the response was "we know it's wrong, but we don't have better science". It is not that the Ministry for the Environment did not have available to it better science. Rather, in the development of the NES, it appears that the Ministry chose not to spend time and money sourcing the better science it needed. As early as May 2009, through a letter from leading international toxicologists, the Ministry was advised that better science was needed in relation to oral bioavailability. Better science did indeed exist, and it was needed; this is evident by the unfortunate fact that this Moanataiari project ended up having to commission and pay for it. But I wonder whether the sponsoring Minister at the time of the NES' development was told "we know it's wrong, but we don't have better science".

Cost benefit:Ministry for the Environment Officials made quite an effort to discredit the cost benefit analysis that was presented to the 5 December Moanataiari Governance Group meeting; yet they had the temerity to not present to the meeting any alternative analysis. This is despite the fact that Cabinet papers refer to (but do not include) a detailed cost benefit analysis prepared by independent consultants at the time of the NES' development. Our reading of the advice given to Cabinet is that the nationwide and potential site-specific costs and impacts were estimated to be less than $1 million. This would be at odds with one scenario for Moanataiari alone which put the cost between $3 million and $10 million. We have asked Officials for comment on our reading of the advice given to Cabinet.

National priority list of contaminated sites:Our request of October 2012 to the Ministry for the Environment for the national priority list of contaminated sites was denied in order to protect free and frank expressions of opinions between Officials and Ministers. What we have requested is simply a list. We do not imagine that such a list would hold a record of free and frank discussions between you. And even if it is, we would gladly receive an appropriately blacked-out copy. In any case we believe that the information release is in the public interest and we agree with MP Catherine Delahunty's reported statement of 24 May 2011 that "The public has an absolute right to know, in straight-forward language, where these sites are and how polluted they are."

We have referred the Ministry's decision to withhold the list to the Office of the Ombudsman.