An urgent briefing reveals 20 percent of the military’s housing estate could have soil contaminated with lead and other harmful materials.

Some Defence Force members and their families have stopped gardening amidst revelations that as many as 400 military-owned houses could be built on soil contaminated with lead, asbestos and arsenic.

That’s according to a briefing marked “URGENT” supplied to Defence Minister Peeni Henare in late February. On April 1, rents in Defence housing rose significantly – in some cases by more than $100 a week.

The briefing reveals the results of soil samples from 150 Defence properties, of which about 20 percent “have been identified with an elevated level of contamination, warranting further investigation and likely needing some remedial action. In particular, elevated levels of lead have featured in these returns”.

While the health risk was assessed as “low”, children were noted as particularly at risk.

What do you think? Click here to comment.

“Lead is hazardous and if ingested can cause developmental and neurological conditions,” Air Marshal Kevin Short, the Chief of the Defence Force, wrote in the briefing to Henare.

All military tenants received a package informing them of the risks, a Defence spokesperson told Newsroom.

“Some tenants have subsequently chosen to reduce their gardening activities to minimise any potential risk,” the spokesperson said.

In the briefing, Short wrote that parents of young children might seek blood samples or “attribute medical conditions already diagnosed to contaminate exposure albeit that these may be unconnected”.

The “worst case scenario” for the military was a “small number of tenants and or children returning a blood lead sample that triggers the notifiable amount (Notifiable to the Public Health Unit). This would result in a further public health lead environmental investigation to identify sources and pathways of exposure, and follow-up actions.”

The spokesperson said they weren’t aware of any blood sampling.

National Party defence spokesperson Chris Penk said it was “disappointing to learn of the issue. It is a long-standing one, so in fairness to the current minister and the current Government, I don’t think it’s particularly the fault of anyone other than construction practices prior to the mid-1980s”.

“Having said that, of course, there is a duty to act swiftly on that advisory from February of this year.”

Remediation of the full stock was only expected to be finished by mid-2023. Eight Devonport properties where elevated levels are about to undergo remediation and protective covering or temporary fencing were provided to between four and six other properties.

“Once complete, the investigation programme will help determine the best approach to any remediation across the NZDF housing estate,” the spokesperson said.

Henare was briefed on the matter just two weeks after Stuff reported that military tenants were rankled by a rent hike on properties they said were in poor condition.

“A friend of mine lived in a [military] house that had gaps in the windows, worn down carpet, flooding in her front lawn, so she couldn’t even use her front door and herself and baby would constantly get sick,” one military tenant told the news outlet.

Both Henare and the Defence Force spokesperson said in separate statements that the rent hike was the result of a negotiation between the military and Inland Revenue and the alternative was to charge much higher market rates.

Penk said this wasn’t good enough.

“I asked specifically about [the rent increases] at select committee and the answer seemed to be along the lines of, this is what the tax legislation calls for. But it just seems like a lack of good faith, really, whereby it seemed to be assumed that personnel just have to sit down and shut up and take whatever housing terms and conditions are given to them,” he said.

In the briefing, Short told Henare that “the age and design of the Defence housing means similar contamination is likely to exist across the entire Defence housing portfolio”.

“Contamination of this nature is not uncommon in the general housing stock in New Zealand and the Defence housing stock is not expected to differ significantly from housing of a similar age and construction across New Zealand.”

Most of the Defence housing portfolio was built between the 1940s and 1970s, when lead was used in paints and roofing nails, asbestos was contained in roof and wall cladding and arsenic was in treated timber. Some houses date back to the turn of the 20th century.

This isn’t the only land contamination issue the military has faced in recent months. Earlier in June, Radio New Zealand reported that a Defence Force firing range is still contaminated with heavy metals, including lead.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment