The Detail today looks at belated government action on the Fox River rubbish dump disaster, where three months after the storm that released a flood of plastic garbage and waste onto pristine West Coast beaches, the clean up job is still nowhere near done. 

The government has stepped in on the West Coast, three months after tonnes of rubbish spilled out of an old dump, into the Fox River and out on towards the ocean. But while it’s putting its hand up for the job, there’s no more money – for now. 

Westland District Council spent $300,000 on the massive clean up job and that amount was matched by the government, along with DoC staff resources. But the council quickly ran out of money and hasn’t been working on the problem since the end of May. In taking over responsibility, Minister Eugenie Sage has emphasised this “is not a precedent for councils to relinquish their role”.

Volunteers have been pitching in, but they’ve been faced with an almost impossible task. Three metre high piles of plastic and other trash was mixed in with debris after the storm that started it all.

The rubbish is strewn through some of the most pristine areas of the country. Sage says tourism businesses in the area rely on the South Westland’s spectacular landscapes and New Zealand’s clean-green reputation. “Piles of rubbish in the riverbed also means the reality risks not matching the image,” Sage says.

There is still about a 21 kilometre stretch of coastline to clear, an area of around 1,620 hectares.

Debris dams and log jams have trapped a significant amount of rubbish along the river. Heavy machinery is needed to remove them, and it will take significant volunteer power to finish the job.

Critics say the government’s rescue job needs to have come much sooner. They talk about this being on the scale of the Rena oil spill off Mt Maunganui in 2011 – and millions was spent on that clean up.

And they say a Local Government New Zealand report on infrastructure exposed to sea level rises shows about 100 landfills are vulnerable. Most are in Auckland, but Otago, Nelson, Canterbury and of course the West Coast all have closed landfills close enough to susceptible water ways to be at risk.

Forest and Bird’s Canterbury West Coast regional manager, Nicky Snoyink, says this event raises a great void in our response to such issues.

“First of all the lack of monitoring and enforcement going on on the West Coast to look at these legacy dumps, and understand the risks associated with climate change …. and also on a central government scale, what is the risk out there?” she says. “Have we done that piece of work to actually understand what is the risk as a nation? And what is the response plan to something like this?”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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