OPINION: Cleaning up Mapua's toxic chemicals site took four years. Dealing with the health concerns of the workers involved has taken another four, and it's not over yet.
The wait for answers has been far too long, particularly for four cleanup workers who first sought acknowledgement of their health issues four years ago.
The former Fruitgrowers Chemical Company plant at the mouth of the Waimea River estuary manufactured pesticides and other chemicals, including DDT and 2,4,5-T for 57 years until its closure in 1988, leaving behind an "orphan contaminated site".
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment began investigating public concerns about the cleanup in 2006 and referred health and safety issues to the Department of Labour.
The department report was first promised at the end of 2008, and then at regular intervals since. Now a draft version has finally emerged and it does not make comforting reading.
The report, by University of Otago senior lecturer in occupational health David McBride, includes details of the health problems experienced by the four workers, out of the 30 involved in the project.
All four were exposed to toxic chemicals through emissions and inadequate protective gear, and suffered deteriorating health during their time at the site.
They include an engineer who was admitted to hospital after collapsing. Two lab workers had fatigue, hypothyroidism and neurological symptoms, while a worker in the dryer plant where contaminated soil was heated also collapsed several times, and has ongoing health problems.
Dr McBride's says clinical evidence shows that the employees suffered from health effects, and the chemicals found at the site were a plausible cause of some, but not all, of those.
His report points to an unfortunate combination of factors in the cleanup.
Novel technology was used on a site with multiple hazards under the direction of the Ministry for the Environment which had little or no experience of such specialist work. The contractor carrying out the work had little experience with health and safety matters.
Dr McBride says "overall, there appeared to be a lack of commitment to health and safety" in the project.
It all seems remarkable for such a high-profile and high-cost ($12 million) remediation at what was once classified as New Zealand's most contaminated site.
The Environment Ministry is now contacting the companies involved in the project to offer their staff medical assessments, but one wonders why that was not done when health concerns first arose.
In 2010 the Ministry of Health announced free medical checks for the residents of 30 to 60 households near the Fruitgrowers site and a study of residents' chemical exposure, including analysing blood samples. That project that began in earnest last year.
Let's hope the delayed lessons from Mapua will be well learned by all the agencies involved.
- © Fairfax NZ News