A Northland property stockpiled one million litres of flammable and toxic chemicals. Almost two years since the situation came to the attention of authorities, the poorly stored solvents remain a fire and environmental risk.

While Government agencies struggled to get a polluter to clean up his mess, up to one million litres of flammable and toxic solvents in corroding drums has sat next door to key infrastructure.

The solvents were illegally accumulated by a Ruakaka solvent recycling plant in breach of its consent to store 50,000 litres of solvent. Poorly stored, they were thought to pose a fire danger to the Marsden Point oil refinery pipeline and its electricity supply.

Last week two grass fires occurred nearby. One was approximately 700 metres away from the property.

Locals are largely unaware of the scale of the issue on their doorstep.

As well as liquid solvents stored outdoors in rusting drums and plastic containers, it’s thought 150 to 200 tonnes of contaminated material was buried illegally. Tests on groundwater showed levels of contamination 1200 times higher than drinking water standards allow. 

The issues with the company and landowner, Sustainable Solvents, stretch back over a decade and include a court case. After enforcement orders were made, the site worsened instead of improved. The amount of solvent stored at the site skyrocketed by 700,000 litres, taking the total to one million litres. 

By 2018, with the company considered technically insolvent by government agencies, alarm bells were quietly rung. 

The issue and escalation of events were revealed in an Official Information Act response from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE). 

“Sorry I’m not emailing you with something more pleasant but we have an issue that we are starting to work on,” was the opening gambit of an email from the MfE to Worksafe in May 2018.

By June, the MfE’s concern escalated:

“… there is a risk, although it may be small, that if a disaster on site were to occur then power to the Marsden Point Refinery may be taken out and/or the pipeline ruptured.”

The smoke from a fire would create a “substantial amount of sooty, carbon-rich smoke”. The fear was this could cause the power lines to arc to the ground.

The power lines are 110 metres away from the property. The pipeline which pumps up to 400,000 litres per hour of petrol, diesel or jet fuel to Auckland, is just 80 metres away. It’s the same pipeline that ruptured in 2017 creating a 10-day fuel shortage that grounded flights. The ocean is 500 metres from the property and Ruakaka’s township around two kilometres away.

Among the chemicals on the site are acetone and methyl ethyl ketone, which are highly flammable and can be ignited by sparks, heat or flame. Chlorinated solvents at the site are thought to be toxic to aquatic life. 

One of two recent fires in nearby paddocks. Photo Farah Hancock

Urgent meetings were called involving MfE, Northland Regional Council, WorkSafe, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and Whangārei District Council.

There was concern the owner of the land could walk away, leaving ratepayers and taxpayers with a dangerous and expensive mess to clean up.

While the solvents sat outside, the OIA chain of emails shows there were disagreements over who should be the lead agency. and fingers were pointed over the effectiveness of the various agencies. 

WorkSafe was offended its efforts were labelled “ineffective”, the EPA’s handling was described as “passive”, Minister for the Environment David Parker called out councils saying the situation “festered” under their watch for a decade.

How 50,000 litres of chemicals grew to one million litres

When it first started, there was hope Sustainable Solvents would live up to its name. In 2010 it boasted on its website about the purchase of a $750,000 still to recycle solvents used in dry cleaning, printing, painting and engineering. 

Once distilled, used solvent could be sold back to operators. The company owner Brian Smith explained on their website: “It’s cheaper for them to get me to clean the used solvent than it is to buy new stuff and then have to pay to dispose of the old.”

He had contracts signed and had gained resource consent from the Whangārei District Council to store 50,000 litres of solvent on site and from the Northland Regional Council to discharge waste to air. 

The solvents he planned to recycle included acetone, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) and chlorinated solvents such as trichloroethane and tetrachloroethene. 

Brian Smith (second from right) in front of the $750,000 still. Photo: Sustainable Solvents website

Early on there were warning signs the company was stretching the rules. 

In 2010 WorkSafe issued compliance orders over the amount of solvent stored, ignition sources in hazardous zones and uncertified containers. According to their notes these were rectified. A log of 20 other visits to the site shows continued compliance concerns.

In 2014 an ex-employee of Sustainable Solvents raised the issue of illegal dumping to the Northland Regional Council. The Bream Bay News reported the person saying there had been “systematic, wholesale, illegal burying and dumping” of chemicals at the site and surrounding property.

“He said a market gardener grew vegetables for sale to the public just 10 metres from a chemical dumpsite, while another dumpsite was alongside grazed farmland.”

A MfE background document released in an Official Information Act request explains that instead of sending the gunk which accumulates at the bottom of the still after heat treatment to an appropriate landfill, Sustainable Solvents illegally experimented with composting it. The composting experiments failed and 150 to 200 tonnes of contaminated material was buried.

Subsequent testing by the Northland Regional Council found contamination including heavy metals and solvents at the site. Sustainable Solvents was convicted of contamination charges. 

It was issued with an enforcement order requiring it to deal with stockpiled drums of solvent either by distilling it, or by sending it elsewhere to be processed. 

This did not happen. Smith allowed another company, Solvent Services, to use the site. According to information included in a MfE OIA response, this company shipped 700,000 litres of solvents to the property.

Solvent Services say it had intended to purchase Sustainable Solvents and take responsibility for processing all the solvents stored. A condition of purchase was the contaminated land had to be cleaned up by Sustainable Solvents. This did not happen and the sale fell through. Solvent Services were locked out of the premises and unable to access or process the solvents it transported there.

The problem was now a one million litre problem.

Parts of the only asset of value on the contaminated site – the $750,000 still – mysteriously disappeared, leaving no way for solvents to be treated.

As well as posing a fire risk, there was the likelihood of the chemicals entering the sandy soil and ending up in groundwater. 

Many of the containers are stored outside, some on unsealed surfaces. Documents from MfE show concern the exposure to the elements will cause corrosion and leaks: “Where and how the solvents are stored presents a high likelihood of further significant environmental contamination occurring.”

“With multiple companies storing hazardous wastes on the site and no clear delineation of the wastes, the ownership of, and therefore liability for, the hazardous wastes on the site is unclear.”

The site is full of drums of solvents and plastic containers of contaminated water. Photo: Farah Hancock

Little change after 20 months

To date, government agencies have avoided shelling out large amounts for a clean-up, although some costs have been incurred. It’s a contrast to a similar situation in Timaru, when an electroplating company was found to have stockpiled chemicals. The taxpayer-funded Timaru clean-up cost around $1 million. 

In Ruakaka the solvents have lingered on site while agencies appear to have pursued a polluter pays solution.

Some of the pallets that the drums are perched on are rotting and sagging. In the middle of a drought, there are wet areas visible next to some of the drums.

Around a quarter of the solvents have been removed by Solvent Services, the second company involved at the site.

Parts of the still that mysteriously disappeared were returned and Solvent Services was able to process and remove some of its product. Before it could finish processing all of its solvents, parts of the still disappeared again.

Solvent Services owner Manus Pretorius summed up his view of the current situation: “We’ve done as much as we can with the agreement of the authorities. The rest that’s on site remains Brian’s responsibility as the landowner.”

It’s not clear if Smith’s company, Sustainable Solvents, processed anything. The Bream Bay News reported him saying in November 2019 he had not visited the site in several months. 

When contacted by Newsroom, Smith said he couldn’t comment as mediation was under way.

What about the risk?

Whangārei District Council chief executive Rob Forlong said regulators are working “to advance the clean up process”.

Some efforts to mitigate fire risk have been made. Local brigades have been informed of the situation. In the event of a fire, locals downwind would be evacuated and there would be “in-house protection” of others.

He said a risk analysis is in the process of being finalised and last summer a security fence was erected around the property and signs were put up warning the public of hazardous substances. A security guard had been hired. 

When asked why the public hasn’t been made aware of the site, he said the signs are part of informing the public and pointed to the November article in the Bream Bay News. This article did not mention the volume of solvents at the site, or the fire concerns that MfE’s OIA response exposed. 

Northland Regional Council group manager regulatory services Colin Dall also said there had been previous publicity about the site when the land contamination was first discovered in 2015 and said signs about hazardous substances had been put up. He said there were no nearby residential properties.

He also confirmed 270,000 litres of solvent had been removed and said monitoring had been undertaken.

“Sampling has been carried out on 10 occasions and very low levels of solvent associated contaminants have been found in groundwater and drain water. At this stage, the impact of the contaminated groundwater is considered to be minor and does not pose a public health risk, particularly as there are no groundwater users down gradient of the site.”

Read more: Southland’s toxic time bomb

Despite drought conditions, moisture can be seen. Photo: Farah Hancock

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