The Government has set aside $25 million for Marlborough iwi after identifying chemical contamination at Woodbourne Air Force Base was too extensive for the land to be a suitable redress.
The Crown and three local iwi, collectively Kurahaupō, knew the base was contaminated with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances from firefighting foam during negotiations over first right of refusal to purchase the land in 2018.
The right of first refusal was granted as part of a 2014 Treaty settlement that found the three iwi – Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne o Wairau – were coerced into selling land, wrongly excluded from Crown land purchases, and left “virtually landless”.
The iwi collective had ancestral ties to sections of the base.
Kurahaupō ended up buying 3.9 hectares of empty land next to Blenheim Airport from the airport in 2019, but the bulk of the site was left out of the deal.
However, a line in the Government’s 2023 Budget showed $25.2m had been put aside to resolve a post-settlement issue at Woodbourne resulting from the firefighting foam contamination.
Te Arawhiti, the Office for Māori Crown Relations, told Newsroom the extent of the contamination and “uncertainties of an emergent contaminant” meant iwi and Government agreed the land was no longer suitable as a commercial redress.
The chemicals could be linked to hormonal problems, arthritis, liver problems and immune disorders and are listed as potential carcinogens, though no consistent link has been made between the chemicals and health problems.
The contamination ruled out the potential purchase of the more substantial remaining parts of the RNZAF Base Woodbourne redress – the operational land and the housing block owned by NZDF.
“Alternative opportunities were considered, but none proved viable. In good faith, the Crown is preparing to offer a financial payment in lieu of the opportunity to purchase the property.”
The funds, generated from a joint submission by Te Arawhiti and New Zealand Defence Force and approved by Cabinet in March, will sit with Te Arawhiti until a resolution to restore the durability of the Kurahaupō settlements can be reached.
PFO contamination, and contamination from lesser understood chemicals, stemming from Defence Force sites has been an evolving problem.
A 2020 study found dangerous chemicals from Woodbourne had leached into the Blenheim aquifer, with water supply bores and spring-fed creeks. A private well used for drinking water on the eastern side of the base also exceeded safe drinking levels.
Last year, Auckland University researchers found PFAs were present in New Zealand wastewaters, coastal waters, and surface waters, though no link was made to firefighting foam in the study.
In that study, Faculty of Science researcher Dr Melanie Kah said it was not yet understood what a safe level of PFA exposure was.
“Guidelines for safe levels are not available for all PFAS, and the guidelines we do have are being revised constantly as more ecotoxicological and health data becomes available.”