New Plymouth mayor fears site is home to ‘chemical cocktail’

The Paritutu agrochemical plant in 1968.
Photo: CC / Philippe Capper

There must be independent oversight of the tests promised by multinational agrochemical company Corteva at its controversial Paritutu site in New Plymouth, Mayor Neil Holdom said.

From the 1960s to 1987, Ivon Watkins (later Ivon Watkins-Dow) manufactured the herbicide 2,4,5-T, in Paritutu – which contained the toxic dioxin TCDD.

The herbicide was a key component of Agent Orange – the defoliant used by the US military during the Vietnam War – and has been linked to cancers and birth defects.

In the mid-1980s, high levels of TCDD were found in soil at the boundary of the site with reserve land and a residential street.

In 1998, similar levels were found on Mount Moturoa some distance away.

Corteva Agriscience, formerly the agricultural arm of DowDuPont, is in the process of demolishing the site and – following lobbying by New Plymouth District Council (NPDC) and Taranaki iwi – has announced that it will thoroughly test the 16-hectare site and release publicly its findings and its plans to clean it all up.

Holdom wants independent oversight of these tests.

“I would think of scientific monitoring by the Taranaki Regional Council and the Ministry of Environment and potentially Taranaki iwi.

“So overseeing the testing and overseeing the preparation of the results to just ensure that objectivity.”

Holdom feared a “cocktail of chemicals” was found in Paritutu.

“Listening to someone who worked at the site, it’s clear that there were over 200 cancer-causing chemicals that were ingredients for the products made there and that the approaches at the time to dealing with them didn’t weren’t very environmentally friendly.

“So there will be a cocktail of chemicals under the ground there and that’s how bad they are, how many there are and how prevalent it is?

“We know there’s dioxin in there and 2, 4, 5-T…we don’t know the list of what’s going to be underground there, but there will be a lot. ”

In response to emails from the NPDC and Taranaki iwi requesting clarity on the testing and its plan for the site, Corteva Agriscience’s New Zealand managing director Rob Kaan said the company would hold a public information on November 21 to share its and Dow’s test plan.

This plan would have “a particular focus on areas with a higher likelihood of contamination and will be based on information obtained from drawings, photos, historical reports, interviews with former employees and input from stakeholders, including regulators.

Kaan said that, as had been the case with routine testing for the past 20 years, Dow would share its results with the Taranaki Regional Council.

“Once sampling and testing has been completed, a cleanup plan for all contaminated areas can be developed in accordance with regulatory requirements.”

To underscore Corteva’s continued commitment to the Paritutu site, Kaan shared Dow’s separation agreement with Du Pont – now part of Corteva – with the NPDC and Taranaki iwi.

“We appreciate that the agreement is quite long and complex as it is intended to cover much more than the allocation of responsibilities; nevertheless, we are sharing it for your information and in response to your request.

“As we have previously shared, Corteva remains committed to meeting its safety and environmental obligations regarding the New Plymouth site and its surrounding communities.”

Kaan said ongoing testing by qualified environmental consultants on behalf of Dow at the site continued to be shared with the Taranaki Regional Council and was publicly available.

“These show that there is no dangerous level of contamination in the groundwater passing under the site. Surface water tests also show no contamination of surface or storm water from the site, and it there are no emissions into the air from the site.”

Holdom said if the site could be secured, he would like to see it donated to the city and turned into a reserve.

“If I could look into my crystal ball and get the end result the site is extremely well cleaned up and then given back to the community and if we could [get] scientific advice that allowed us to ensure its safety, we could plant it and let it regenerate and let nature come back there and have it as a public space.

“But we can’t have people in there if it’s not safe. You can’t put playgrounds or public gardens or things like that because of the risk of dioxins and things like that. .”

Holdom was also realistic about what Corteva’s plans for the site might be if it proved safe.

“I’m pragmatic, I think if Corteva cleans the site up really well it will add value to it and they’ll probably look to bring it to market and someone will buy it and develop it.”

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