Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is famed for its soaring mountains, and billed as a harsh land of ice and rock. Glaciers cover 40 percent of the sprawling South Island park.

Now the Department of Conservation is accused of being glacial for moving too slowly in its response to an exposed landfill just a few kilometres from Aoraki/Mt Cook Village.

The landfill first came to the attention of the department in October 2020, after it was exposed by heavy rain.

The department then “started the process” to get the money and resources to investigate and manage the site.

That process was interrupted 16 months later – in February of this year – when the Hooker River flooded, further exposing contents of the landfill.

“The type of material exposed is relatively heavy items such as old, rusted drums, vehicle parts, and crockery,” Aoraki operations manager Sally Jones says.

The flood spurred DoC to prioritise work at the site. Jones says funding was allocated to complete investigation works and develop an interim site management plan, involving checks weekly or after severe weather.

However, temporary erosion protection is only just now being designed, and a consultant sought to carry out a more detailed investigation, which will confirm the landfill’s “scope” and decide the long-term, remediation approach.

“Until this investigation is complete, we will not have a timeframe or cost for this work,” Jones says.

DoC is aware of two other landfills in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park but they are further away from the river and not eroding. They’re not thought to pose an immediate risk, she says.

“The slow response by the Department of Conservation in Aoraki probably just illustrates how the department needs better funding, but the wider issue needs to be addressed too.”
– Juressa Lee

Covid-19 disruptions and the department’s associated funding crisis might explain some of the foot-dragging.

But let’s remind ourselves this is a landfill, closed in about 1986 after operating for 26 years, in one of the country’s most treasured places – a national park.

“The slow response by the Department of Conservation in Aoraki probably just illustrates how the department needs better funding, but the wider issue needs to be addressed too,” says Juressa Lee (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi, Rarotonga), a campaigner with environmental group Greenpeace Aotearoa.

“At-risk landfills are an effect of a systemic problem, and the Government needs to show leadership.”

She says as the climate crisis intensifies, flooded rivers will expose more and more old landfills.

Yesterday, the Government released its national adaptation plan, setting out how Aotearoa will prepare for a warmer, wetter and more dangerous world. A specific proposal put forward was to scope the scale of sealed landfills’ vulnerability to climate impacts, and make available a potential fund to improve those landfills’ resilience.

“Government must regulate to stop big corporations from endlessly producing masses of single-use plastic such as packaging and poorly designed products destined for landfills and instead incentivise circular solutions like reuse and refill.”

As Newsroom reported in May, the Ministry for the Environment is phasing out problem plastics but the Government’s plans are yet to reach Coke and Pepsi bottles, despite research suggesting Kiwis are increasingly concerned about the build-up of plastic in the environment.

The Fox River rubbish dump disaster left rubbish strewn through some of the most pristine areas of the country. Photo: South Westland Coastal Cleanup

Readers could be forgiven for having flashes of 2019, when a West Coast storm tore open an old landfill along the Fox River, scattering debris for 300km, and prompting a clean-up drawing volunteers from around the country, and costing close to $1 million.

While DoC’s Jones says it’s not known how much material has been dislodged at Aoraki/Mt Cook, there’s no evidence large amounts of rubbish have been washed down the river.

“A clean-up plan is being developed which will be carried out by appropriate contractors.”

Newsroom has reported on concerning decisions in other South Island national parks in recent years, such as blasting a 70-tonne sandstone rock overhang on the West Coast, and felling dozens of trees at Arthur’s Pass. But they were done because of an inappropriately strong focus on visitor safety, while neglecting the department’s mandate to conserve nature.

Regulator Environment Canterbury, the regional council known, confirms it must be notified of exposed landfills. DoC notified the council about Aoraki/Mt Cook “before May”.

Asked if the council has undertaken any monitoring or enforcement, southern zone lead Peter Burt says: “We are keeping in touch with DoC on the issue.

“The Department of Conservation is the landowner and they have informed us that they are dealing with the remediation of the site and also have their own internal expertise. We are happy to support them with their action plan and provide advice as required.”

Last year, Stuff reported at least 321 old landfills around the country are at risk from angry seas or river flooding, which could cause big problems for the environment, the economy and public health.

However, there’s a dearth of information about the location of old dumps and their vulnerability. (ECan keeps a record of known landfill sites on a land-use register, and Burt says it runs a programme to identify sites like former sheep dips and farm landfills.)

The situation in Aoraki/Mt Cook exposes another problem. Even when rubbish from old dumps are uncovered, there appears to be little money available – even by government departments, responsible for looking after national parks – to deal with it.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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