At What Price?

At what price do we support industry in our local communities? Industries provide employment and may attract related industries, providing even more employment. Councils generally welcome industry. Just hold that thought.

Last week we had torrential rain for days on end after an extended dry period. Southland’s a region of rivers and they quickly rose. Eventually all the roads leading into Southland were closed. [We’re in West Otago and have alternative routes we can travel but some roads near us were closed.]

Mataura River at the town of Mataura, south of Gore. Taken by Nigel in 2013.

The above photo is taken from the Mataura Bridge where the town’s shops are. You can see there’s industrial buildings above the river. On the LHS is a huge abattoir and meat processor. On the RHS is an old paper mill, the focus of my story. Next photo: a closer view of the same buildings.

This photo is 1400px-wide, click on the photo to enlarge.

The Mataura River is a major river 240 kilometres (150 miles) long and it floods every time we get lots of rain so with the torrential rain it quickly rose causing massive flooding through much of the Gore District. People whose homes are close to the river in Gore and Mataura had to evacuate.

At this point I’ll make mention of the Tiwai Aluminium Smelter, south of Invercargill, which I’ve posted about in the past. Here’s a photo of the smelter:


When the smelter makes aluminium there’s an unwanted byproduct referred to as dross. Lots of it. Over a long period of time there’s been various schemes to process it but they haven’t worked out. It’s ended up getting partially processed into something called ouvea premix and 10,000 tonnes of ouvea got stored in the old paper mill at Mataura, right by the river.

Thing is, if this stuff gets wet it produces ammonia gas. And there’s residential properties behind the paper mill.

People who live near the mill were evacuated but initially led to believe this was due to flood risk, only being told later that the ammonia gas risk was a big reason. Things got pretty hot for the Gore District Council. Ultimately concern about the situation reached right up to the level of NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who said on Thursday that “there needs to be a long-term solution found for the residents of Mataura”.

The Council have since announced that the ouvea premix will be moved to another Southland location within a few months. (It was already in the process of being trucked out but only 450 tonnes had been removed, one truckload a week and it was going to take years to get rid of it – to Australia for processing).

This article Ammonia threat to be shifted starts with a photo of the flooded Mataura River rushing past the paper mill building – you can see for yourself what a close shave this was, with the site very close to being flooded by the river.

In my previous post (linked to above), I’d quoted from the smelter’s website that the smelter contributes 10.5 per cent of Southland’s GDP. Approximately 800 full-time equivalent employees and contractors work at the smelter. It really makes you wonder about the cosy relationships between industry and councils when this kind of stuff happens. Admittedly the ouvea premix was initially stored in the building without resource consent (2014) but in 2016 the Gore Council issued a two-year retrospective consent to the company concerned albeit with a $2.3 million bond.

THEN the Tiwai smelter didn’t renew the contract, the company went into liquidation and eventually the liquidators “disclaimed” the ouvea premix (yes, unbelievably they could legally do that) and it became “Treasury’s problem” i.e. the Government’s (!)  Government, Southland Councils, the smelter, and other stakeholders eventually managed to collectively arrange the Australia solution due to diligent negotiation undertaken by the Gore District Council CEO.

Note: the liquidators reportedly disclaimed 20,000 tonnes of ouvea. There’s up to 12,000 tonnes in storage elsewhere in Southland, in addition to that at Mataura.

Further Reading

Other articles I’ve come across if anyone wants more information.

An overview of this very long-running saga, lots of twists and turns:
Tiwai 2: Return of the dreaded dross

Scientists discussing the danger posed by wet ouvea producing ammonia gas:
Toxic ammonia gas from Southland floods: What you need to know

A map of the Mataura Catchment from it’s source just south of Queenstown to the mouth of the Mataura River at Fortrose. Page three of this 3-page factsheet (pdf):
Map of the Mataura Catchment

Text by Liz, Mataura photos by Nigel and smelter photo by Liz
Exploring Colour (2020)

5 thoughts on “At What Price?

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  1. There are similar examples of councils making deals with industry all over NZ I suspect Liz. In my home town the paper mill, the major employer has discharged waste water into the river for 60 years, damaging it so much it became known as the Black Drain. And in the next town over, a major cleanup operation to remove dioxin contaminated material from drains has just ended. I guess it’s a balancing act to create jobs for communities but some things should never be allowed. Like storing dangerous materials in residential areas and also like the water bottling plants that are popping up all over the country. Shameful.

    Liked by 1 person

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