Harbor Bridge Contamination: Review to Examine Likelihood of Health Risks in Neighboring Properties

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The Transport Agency has launched an external review of heavy metal and oil contamination beside the Auckland Harbor Bridge.

Auckland’s Harbor Bridge during the lockdown of Covid-19 alert level four.
Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The review will consider whether it is “more than likely or not” that there are unacceptable health risks in neighboring properties.

A Northcote homeowner dismisses the criticism as “lip service.”

Kaipātiki local council, while “delighted”, expressed concerns over whether residents would be heard.

The Transportation Agency released the terms of reference for the review without consulting locals, after the board has called for a meeting since September.

It was at this point that RNZ revealed that the agency discovered contamination at Stokes Point ten years ago, but chose not to notify residents.

He received several recommendations at the time to test at nearby properties, but did not.

The first stage of the review is to report to the public early next year and to the regional regulator Auckland Council.

The council has previously claimed that there is “no risk to human health” from the contaminants found in the soil.

The terms of reference and cover letter to residents do not specify whether locals will have the opportunity to participate in the review, or whether they will consider why the locals were not notified 10 years ago.

Vice-president of the board Danielle Grant said the two had to happen.

“This should because there are families who have lived in the area for decades, and for their peace of mind there should be an opportunity for their concerns to be heard.”

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The terms of the review do not say whether it will take into account the lack of regular monitoring of contaminants; tests were carried out in 2000 and 2010 to support resource consent requests, with spot tests in 2016 when upgrading the public reserve.

“The health and safety of the community must be paramount,” Grant said.

“And whatever processes need to be in place to make sure that’s the case, I think that’s what we need to ask.”

The transportation agency said it had invited residents to ask questions about the exam.

Phil Moore has lived in the area for 22 years.

He accused the agency of “doing the bare minimum”.

“It doesn’t build trust, does it?

“It’s nothing, or there might be an ‘Erin Brockovich’ moment.

“But, you know, clarity has to be established on this.”

Erin Brockovich was a Californian whose exposure to pollution from a power company was turned into a movie.

Risk management by the Transportation Agency and the board “smacks of life in the 1960s,” Moore said.

“I work in the oil industry. And I can tell you that we would never play Russian Roulette with health and safety.

“If this was a situation at one of our facilities, then there would be a full investigation, the site would be closed, and everyone would be tested independently.”

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The exam conditions do not say whether the household properties will be tested for the first time or not.

Danielle Grant said it should be up to each owner to decide, echoing what the council has said previously.

The terms of the review do not mention the marine or wider environment, although Auckland Regional Public Health told the Transport Agency in 2011 that it needs to consider impacts on these.

“When they were doing bridge maintenance, the whole area was covered like red dust… it was like thick snow,” Moore said, referring to several years ago, although the bridge maintenance continues throughout the year.

“So there was dust everywhere. And, you know, not only would it have affected the properties, but it would have affected the marine life,” he said.

“It is deplorable that an organization like this adopts this cavalier attitude.

“Maybe all is well found – but until they do a proper independent investigation, no one will know.”

The agency said the impact on the port was assessed in 2010/11. RNZ asked him to provide the assessment.

The rejections had been “well below” the resource consent thresholds, as shown by the annual monitoring reports since 2015, provided to RNZ.

In a letter to residents, the agency said “records show lead-based paints were not used on exterior surfaces … at Stokes Point.”

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However, maximum lead concentrations in soil increased significantly between 2000 and 2010.

Since improvements to bridge maintenance since 2015, less stripping waste has been discharged, he said, adding that the conditions for resource consent were met.

However, documents from 2011 indicated that consents had been widely violated over the past decade and that the contractor responsible for maintaining the bridge was not even aware of the release conditions to the air.

The review would include interviews with the maintenance contractor’s staff and an assessment of their records, the agency said.

Zinc levels are very high on the Stokes Pt / Te Onewa Pa reserve, as well as at the south end of the bridge at Erin Point, where the houses are further away.

Zinc is less harmful to humans, although toxic to marine life and to humans at high levels.

Until 2013, 1.4 tonnes of zinc per year was discharged at the bridge. This has now been drastically reduced to a few kilograms.

Zinc and copper are at high levels in the harbor waters near the bridge.

The Auckland Council’s 2011 health risk assessment, which it only recently released, found lead and hydrocarbons at levels below all risk; he felt that other heavy metals did not need to be evaluated.

The area “is safe for the public to use and enjoy,” he said.

Carcinogenic BAP hydrocarbon contamination likely originates from old landfills or trail material.

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