Underground menace for property owners

18:16, May 13 2014

Environment Canterbury has identified 11,000 properties, which may host toxic chemicals. Could some be buried at your place? Rachel Young reports.

About 11,000 Christchurch properties have been earmarked as potentially contaminated.

From today, you can check if your property may have soil contaminated by chemicals or hazardous substances, such as lead, arsenic and pesticides. CLICK HERE TO CHECK.

The contaminants remain in the ground from a previous use of the land.

Have you discovered your land is potentially contaminated? Get in touch with our reporter by emailing rachel.young@press.co.nz

Since 2008, all regional councils have been identifying land where hazardous activities have taken place to pinpoint where harmful chemicals might remain. CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFO.


Environment Canterbury (Ecan) has sped up the process in Christchurch because of landowners needing to carry out major land repairs or rebuilds since the earthquakes.

ECan staff, plus several from other agencies, have spent the past few months poring over decades of old photographs, maps, documents and any information relating to the sites.

Today, ECan will begin contacting the 11,000 property owners whose properties may have once hosted hazardous activities and industries, including horticulture sites, service stations and sheep dips.

About 665 properties are affected because of significant land damage and an increased vulnerability to liquefaction. About 450 have to undertake a major rebuild. 

''We are super-conscious of the impact that this sort of thing [possible pollution] will have on people in Christchurch. In fact, some of us are going through it ourselves and it's not that damn pleasant really, so we do get that,'' ECan investigations and monitoring director Ken Taylor said.

''In many cases, the soil will be fine. Just because someone's land has been an orchard, for instance, does not necessarily mean hazardous substances were actually used or buried there, just that they could have been.''

Taylor said landowners had a right to know this information, and it had been released now as it was ready and was relevant to those dealing with earthquake-related issues. Such landowners may need to have testing done, as problems could emerge when land was disturbed.

The largest concentration of properties is around northern parts of Christchurch.

Taylor said it was important the information was released now as there was a potential for these sites to be disturbed with people repairing and rebuilding properties. People had a right to know.

Investigating, managing or remediating contaminated land was generally the landowner's responsibility. 

Earthquake Commission (EQC) head of land settlement Zac Berry said for the 1100-odd properties that might be affected as a result of the earthquakes damaging land it would pay for investigations.

If land was found to be contaminated then EQC would cover the additional costs. However, there were limitations. CLICK HERE to find out what to do if your land is contaminated. 

If land was found to be contaminated outside of EQC cover, then it was up to the private insurer or individual.

Taylor said other than those earthquake-affected property owners, landowners could choose not to get their soil tested.

Testing costs were case specific, but an average site was about $5000.

Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Ramon Pink said there was a low risk to health from living on contaminated land, but proving causality was often hard.

He said the biggest issue with the release of the information was the psychosocial impact it would have on already stressed-out Cantabrians, particularly those dealing with repairs and rebuilds. 

Pink said those on affected properties should ensure they practised good personal hygiene, kept soil out of the house, washed homegrown fruit and vegetables thoroughly, and ensured young children did not eat soil.

For those with green fingers, he recommended raised vegetable gardens.

Christchurch City Council unit manager inspections and enforcement Anne Columbus said under the National Environment Standards there were five key triggers, including change of land use, when land would be tested as part of a resource consent application. 

She said in most cases remediation work, including capping, could be easily done. 

Under New Zealand property law, property owners are responsible for any contamination problems on their land, with it, even if they did not cause them, or were not aware of them when they bought the land.

Likewise, those renting can ask landlords to ensure their health and safety, which he or she is bound to under the Residential Tenancies Act 1986.

Letters to landowners will include information on the history of their property, and on dates and times for a series of planned public meetings for this month and June.

The Press