26 Jan 2018

Farmer feels vindicated in battle with Defence Force

7:14 pm on 26 January 2018

A former Marlborough farmer says the least he might expect is an apology from the government if it is found he was right about groundwater poisoning.

The RNZAF Woodbourne Airbase near Blenheim.

The RNZAF Woodbourne Airbase near Blenheim. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Gordon Appleton lost a legal battle with the government in the 1990s over allegations his groundwater was poisoned by activities on the nearby air force base at Woodbourne.

He took the Defence Force to court but was not able to establish that poisons from Woodbourne Base had leaked into the aquifer and poisoned his deer.

Late last year the Defence Force announced it had discovered chemicals used in firefighting foam had leached into nearby soil and water at bases in Ohakea and Woodbourne.

Tests have now confirmed some properties have been contaminated.

Gordon Appleton

Gordon Appleton Photo: RNZ/Tracy Neal

In the 1990s, Mr Appleton lived on a Blenheim farm about 1.5 kilometres downstream from the Woodbourne base. He first knew something was wrong when a deer died suddenly.

"The first deer that I saw die, it was a pet hind, it walked up our paddock and drank from a small spring. Within two or three minutes she was laying down convulsing and died within minutes "

He called the vet, the council and the health board and a meeting was held.

Mr Appleton said post-mortems on some of the animals at the time pointed to contamination, but it was not clear where it might have been coming from. But he suspected Woodbourne could have been the source.

The arduous legal process that followed cost him financially and emotionally. He became what was described by some who lived nearby at the time as a social outcast.

Gordon Appleton lost his fight with the air force in the 1990s.

Mr Appleton lost a court battle in the 1990s. Photo: RNZ/Tracy Neal

"I took the Defence Department to the High Court, the trial took approximately eight weeks, we spent a fortune getting water tests done, in the majority of those wells we did find toxic products. By the time I finished this battle with the air force I was 100 percent in debt."

Mr Appleton said he funded the fight by selling assets, borrowing money and with help from family. He believes the recent revelations were the same as his own discoveries and he was relieved that the Defence Force is now taking it seriously.

But he was worried about the impact of long-term exposure to the chemicals.

"I'm quite sad that it has taken so long for the story to be released and so many people, potentially for the last 14 or 15 or so years have continued to be poisoned."

Mr Appleton, who now lives on a rural block south of Nelson, said the priority now is for the contamination to be cleaned up.

The New Zealand Defence Force said Mr Appleton's case was extensively covered in court.

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