New Plymouth mayor fears site may contain ‘cocktail of chemicals’


The Paritutu agrochemical plant in 1968.
Photo: CC / Phillip Capper

There should be independent oversight of multinational agrochemical company Corteva’s promised testing of the controversial Paritutu site in New Plymouth, Mayor Neil Holdom said.

From the 1960s to 1987, Ivon Watkins (later Ivon Watkins-Dow) made the herbicide 2,4,5-T in Paritutu – which contained the toxic dioxin TCDD.

The herbicide was a key component of Agent Orange — the defoliant used by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War — and has been linked to cancers and birth defects.

In the mid-1980s, elevated levels of TCDD were found in the ground on the boundaries of the reserve land and residential street.

In 1998, similar levels were found on Mount Moturoa some distance away.

Corteva Agriscience, formerly the agricultural arm of DowDuPont, is in the process of demolishing the site and, following lobbying by the New Plymouth District Council (NPDC) and Taranaki iwi, has announced it will thoroughly test the 16-acre site and report the results and plan for each cleaning.

Holdom wants independent oversight of those tests.

“I would think of some scientific oversight by the Taranaki Regional Council and the Ministry of Environment, for example, and possibly Taranaki iwi.

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“So oversee the testing and oversee the preparation of the results to ensure that objectivity.”

Holdom feared a “cocktail of chemicals” would be found in Paritutu.

“If you listen to someone who worked at the site, it’s clear that there were over 200 cancer-causing chemicals that were ingredients for the products produced there and the approaches to dealing with them used to be not very environmentally friendly.

“So there’s going to be a cocktail of chemicals under there in there and it’s just how bad they are, how much there is and how widespread it is?

“We know there’s dioxin in it and 2, 4, 5-T … we don’t know the list of what will be underground there, but there will be a lot of them.”

Responding to emails from the NPDC and Taranaki iwi asking for more clarity about the testing and plan for the site, Corteva Agriscience Director for New Zealand, Rob Kaan, said the company will make a public announcement on Nov. information session to be and Dow’s test plan.

That plan would have “specific focus on areas at higher risk of contamination and will be based on information obtained from drawings, photographs, historical reports, interviews with former employees and input from stakeholders, including regulators”.

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Kaan said that, as has been the case for routine testing for the past 20 years, Dow would share its results with the Taranaki Regional Council.

“Once the sampling and testing is done, a plan can be developed for cleaning up areas found to be contaminated, in line with legal requirements.”

To outline Corteva’s continued commitment to the Paritutu site, Kaan shared Dow’s divorce agreement with Du Pont — now a part of Corteva — with the NPDC and Taranaki iwi.

“We appreciate that the agreement is quite long and complex, as it was intended to cover much more topics than the assignment of liabilities; nevertheless, we are sharing it for your information and in response to your request.

“As we have previously shared, Corteva remains committed to meeting its safety and environmental obligations with regard to the New Plymouth site and surrounding communities.”

Kaan said current tests conducted by qualified environmental consultants on behalf of Dow at the site are still shared with the Taranaki Regional Council and available to the public.

“This shows that there is no dangerous level of contamination in the groundwater flowing below the site. Surface water testing also shows no contamination in surface or storm water from the site and there are no emissions to air from the site.”

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Holdom said if the site could be made safe, he’d be happy to donate it to the city and turn it into a reservation.

“If I could look into my crystal ball and get the final result, the site has been cleaned extremely well and then given back to the community and if we could [get] scientific advice that allowed us to guarantee its safety, we could plant it out and let it regenerate and let nature come back in and have it as a public space.

“But we can’t have people there if it’s not safe. You can’t put playgrounds or public gardens or things like that there because of the risk of dioxins and things like that.”

Holdom was also realistic about what Corteva’s plans for the site might be if it turned out to be safe.

“I’m pragmatic. My view is that if Corteva cleans up the site really well that will add value to it and they’ll probably just try to market it and someone will buy it and develop it.”


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