10 Jun 2009

Health plan leaves drum residents out in the cold

9:10 pm on 10 June 2009

People exposed to toxic chemical waste in New Plymouth more than three decades ago will have to argue their case if they want to be included in dioxin health services.

Herbicide ingredients contaminated with dioxin from the city's former Ivon Watkins-Dow chemical factory have been found buried underneath a children's playground at Marfell Park - once the city tip.

A Health Ministry deal for former Paritutu residents covers people who lived, worked or went to school within 1,200 metres of the factory during its manufacture of 245T between 1962 and 1987.

But the ministry says it would need a scientific basis to widen its offer of free annual heath checks, counselling and nutrition and exercise advice to reduce cancer risk.

However, the Green Party says that is not good enough. It says dioxin health services should be extended after the discovery of the drums at the playground.

Green Party spokesperson Catherine Delahunty says people exposed in dumps or elsewhere deserve the same level of care as those in the high-danger zone.

Testing for Taranaki Regional Council has found the dioxin TCDD at a level campaigners say is the highest ever found in New Zealand.

Residents say children played with drums in dumps, and splashed in an outfall on the beach below the factory.

Children's playground

A woman who played among waste drums near the dump says it was common for children to play in such areas.

Leanne Bowler lived in Marfell as a child and played in drums on waste land backing on to another former dump, a block away from what is now Marfell Park.

Ms Bowler says that as a child she jumped and stood on rusting drums without realising what they might be.

She also lived next to the chemical factory in nearby Paritutu - the source of the toxins found at Marfell Park.

She had surgery for the bone disease osteomylosis in her legs but does not blame chemical exposure for that or any illness as an adult.

She says other people may have come in contact with agrichemical waste at the old dumps - including children who played with drums.

Ms Bowler says they should be included in the health plan announced last year.

No record of drum movement

The company that produced the dioxin-contaminated herbicides says it does not know how the waste drums ended up buried in the playground.

Dow Agrosciences, formerly Ivon Watkins-Dow, says it has not handled such ingredients in New Plymouth for 20 years and has no record of how the drums got there.

It says the procedure was for the drums to be washed for reuse or scrap, with waste being incinerated or stored until disposal at company sites.

Law changes possible

Environment Minister Nick Smith has asked Taranaki Regional Council to report on its testing regime for suspected toxic dump sites.

He says such sites need to be identified in the interests of public health.

Dr Smith says he would be concerned if current laws work against information coming forward and if that is the case a law change will be considered.

He says he wants the results of post-clean-up tests by the end of the week, but says residents do not need to test blood dioxin levels because the drums had only small amounts of chemical inside and were quickly removed after their discovery.

Testing difficult

Taranaki Regional Council says it will be technically too hard to come up with a soil testing protocol that satisfies the nearby residents.

Director of environment quality Gary Bedford says the council regularly samples stormwater flow from the area, which would pick up surface contamination.