May 24, 2011

Chemical dump under the Opuha Dam

Environment Canterbury is to investigate a claim of chemical dumps containing 'Agent Orange' in the Opuha Dam (Fairlie), created when the dam was being constructed in the 1990s

Damned dam: chemical dump claim

23 May, 2011 11:20 AM
THE Opihi Catchment and Environment Protection Society (OCEPS) wants Environment Canterbury to investigate a claim of chemical dumps in the Opuha Dam (Fairlie), created when the dam was being constructed in the 1990s.

The claim was supported by an affidavit from a man who worked on the dam for six weeks during the autumn of 1994 and a photo supplied from someone else.

OCEPS believes there may be more photos available from a second anonymous source.

During that time, the deponent (person who makes an affidavit) worked for a Fairlie farmer who subcontracted his and the deponent’s services to the dam but the contractor withdrew his services when he realised the chemical dumps were being formed.

The deponent, however, continued to work there driving machinery and trucks so was familiar with what was happening.

A lawyer, a pharmacist and this writer were present when the affidavit was made and believed it was genuine.

The deponent was able to identify where at least three of the dumps were.

He recalled seeing several offal pits, which were deepened with a dragline to accommodate the chemicals and estimated one of the dumps was at least “20 yards long and six yards wide”.

Having previously worked with chemicals in the high country, he recognised the drums and containers that went into the dumps.

Among the chemicals were 2,4,5-T, more commonly referred to as Agent Orange, a chemical used for defoliation of jungles during the Vietnam war, 2,4,5-T and Young’s Sheep Dip.

Bulldozers owned by contractor Doug Hood were used to cover the pits and compact the area.

“I noticed the progress that they were making with bulldozers because in the evenings I would bike down to the area concerned to see what was happening.

“I have no doubt whatsoever with regard to what was in the drums in the pits, and most of the drums were sealed, and I also had no doubt that these drums were not extracted from the area.”

He said on the occasions that he went to check on the progress that the bulldozers were making, the smell of the chemicals was almost overpowering.

He discussed the presence of the chemical dumps with the construction company overseer and a high country farmer with a financial stake in the project, and told them “this would come back to haunt them.”

“The overseer told me to ‘forget what you have seen here, leave it here’.

“And, ‘if news of this ever got out, we would know who to look for’.

“I had no doubt that he meant what he said.”

The deponent’s son (17 at the time) was also present when that particular exchange took place and he called the overseer a bastard for threatening his dad.

The overseer and the high country farmer are now dead.

Straight Furrow rang Doug Hood Ltd to discuss the possibility of chemical dumps and to know if any of the overseers who worked on the dam were still around or alive, and a spokesperson said no they were not, and he had been with the company for 10 years, adding that Doug Hood died soon after the dam was completed. In 2001, the New Zealand Contractors Federation and Caltex jointly recognised Doug Hood Ltd’s commitment to the contracting industry with regard to the successful completion of the Opuha Dam in 1999.

It was possible another particularly large dump, besides the four the deponent was aware of, was created.

He recalled another farmer in the district had purchased four farms which he was converting to dairy and one day he saw him carting a large truck load of chemical containers to the dam but he did not see him dump them.

That farmer no longer lived in the district.

Apparently the mindset of the time was that it was OK to bury chemicals in the offal pits on the floor of the dam, instead of having them disposed of professionally.

The reason the deponent, an angler, had spoken out, was because he was aware of concerns raised in recent years (some through local media) by other anglers, who complained and still do, of foul stenches on stretches of the Opihi River, trout with blackish flesh, that stank so much they were inedible, and erratic results from regular water samples that OPECS was having done on the Opihi, and Opuha rivers to establish the viability of aquatic life.

A laboratory had agreed to test trout taken from the river and look for toxins.

Finding trout was a problem although Fish and Game has offered its fish stunner for the purpose of collecting small fish.

The consensus among anglers was that something was not right about the Opihi although it was accepted some of this could be to do with decomposing organic matter on the bottom of the dam.

The Opuha River flows into the dam, and downstream of it, was joined by the Opihi River.

An excerpt from The Meredith Report commissioned by the Opuha Dam Company in June 1999, and authored by Adrian Meredith, points to potential problems downstream.

“It has been identified that water quality considerations were not significantly considered in the design, construction and subsequent commissioning of the Opuha Dam.

Resource consents issued for the construction and operation similarly do not comprehensively address situations of likely water quality degradation in terms of monitoring requirements or management responses.”

Anglers claimed that sea run salmon that “parked up” in the Opihi River to acclimatise were also tainted after being in the river for a while.

It was rumoured local butchers refused to smoke some of the salmon because they smelt so bad.

The deponent said at the time the dumps were formed, he did decide to keep quiet but he now believed differently, and the knowledge of the dump’s existence had “gnawed away at me” over the years.

He reckoned the drums in the dam “must be rusting out by now”, and believed chemical leakages might be one of the reasons for some of the problems in the Opihi.

Either way he wants an investigation, given, if they have not rusted out yet, they eventually will, leading to potential health hazards because of the persistent nature and toxicity of the chemicals involved.

The Opuha was considered the “jewel in the crown” of the Mackenzie District and many farms drew water from it for irrigation.

Retired farmer Tom Henderson was considered the founder of the dam, and when contacted about the claims was stunned, and said “Oh shit, what can I do to help.”

The Opuha is a popular destination for anglers, boaties, kayakers, water skiers, and children who swim around the shoreline.

It was the first dam built after the Resource Management Act 1991 was introduced.

OCEPS supports the need for investigation to verify whether the dumps are active or not, and, as with chemical dumps discovered elsewhere, expect remedial work would have to be carried out by someone.

Before the affidavit was made, Straight Furrow spoke with ECan about the procedures involved in establishing the validity of chemical dumps and was told it was not uncommon for former employees to come forward and tell of them.

• ECan has moved swiftly to check out the chemical dump claims.

“This is a very serious matter and we definitely have to get onto it as soon as we possibly can,” Brett Aldridge, ECan’s environmental protection manager, said.

“We need to find the basis of the information and the truthfulness of it and the main point is to track the location of the dumps.”

related links: 

ECan moves on chemical dump claims

  Environment Canterbury is investigating 245T claims