West Coast warning
The West Coast landfill environmental disaster could happen anywhere in New Zealand, says a former manager of Tairawhiti Civil Defence.
Louise Bennett has returned from a month of helping with the Fox Landfill response.
More than 5500 tonnes of rubbish went into the Fox River and were carried into the ocean after an old landfill at Fox Glacier breached during a major storm in March.
With many years of experience leading the Civil Defence team here, alongside helping with the Rena oil spill response in Tauranga in 2011, Mrs Bennett was called in to help with the management of the initial clean-up by Maritime New Zealand.
She was shocked by the volume of rubbish that had spewed into the valley and out to sea.
She was also extremely impressed with the volunteers led by coordinator Mike Bilodeau, who she said had such “a passion and energy to get things done”.
Such was their commitment, volunteers were prepared to go down on their hands and knees to pick up rubbish, she said.
Volunteers came from Auckland to Invercargill. Many were tourists who wanted to give back to New Zealand.
“In a week they made 500 metres of progress. It was slow but they were amazing. They never complained and were always happy and smiling.”
Local businesses played their part, donating vouchers, chocolate, free massages and spas for the volunteers.
“Franz Josef and Fox Glacier townships are very community-focused and I was fortunate to be treated like one of the locals.”
There were 20 to 25 kilometres of rubbish down the river and more on the beaches.
Mrs Bennett worked with Westland District Council to structure the clean-up including organising supplies such as water and needle-proof gloves for the volunteers — most of which came from Greymouth or Christchurch.
She also organised the waste to be flown out once volunteers had collected it from the beaches.
“We were initially based in the Franz Josef township and helicopters were our mode of transport, but once the (washed-away) Waiho Bridge was rebuilt (after 2½ weeks), this made it a lot easier to drive to the areas.”
Mrs Bennett had to find a nearby landowner happy for his land to be used as a staging area for the rubbish to be bulked up and helicoptered to a landfill in Hokitika.
Most of the rubbish was double-bagged to stop secondary contamination, however, some loose polystyrene dropped off was attacked by kea, leaving a huge mess to clean up on the landowner’s land.
“This took four of us one whole day to remediate the farmland as we were picking each polystyrene bead up by hand. We could not return the land to the owner in that condition.”
Gisborne woman part of West Coast clean-upExperienced in recovery, Mrs Bennett also advised on processes such as the pros and cons of burning, discharge to air and landfill consents, and health and safety concerns for the clean-up downstream of Fox Glacier.
“We needed a strategy for if a dam burst further up and we had teams working in the riverbed below.
“There were also different challenges to consider. As it was getting colder we had snow on the higher peaks but some very, warm days meant snow melted, causing more water in the river and more risk to the volunteers.
“This is the reason why this mess has to be cleaned up by spring as this is the time that heavy rain, as well as melting snow, causes major flooding.”
The clean-up of the beaches was in full swing but momentum was lost when work stopped over the Easter and Anzac Day holidays as many people had plans for the long holiday break.
“People were tired and needed a break, with many having worked long hours and days.”
Refocusing on the clean-up was a problem as most people wanted to get back to their normal life.
The clean-up in Westland will cost millions but with only 6500 ratepayers in the district, they cannot afford to pay for it.
Volunteers are still working on the clean-up through the Department of Conservation, which is offering free food and accommodation for volunteers.
The New Zealand Defence Force this week sent staff and other resources to help clean up for a month.
The NZDF is also using its helicopter and military vehicles to transport personnel and volunteers from Fox Glacier to various locations to collect bags of rubbish.
Mrs Bennett says there are more than 100 closed landfills around New Zealand in riverbeds.
“There are also a lot not identified. This experience made me very aware of what could happen with these. We owe it to the next generation to say this is what could happen and mitigate the risks.
“We can’t blame past generations. They didn’t know but now we know the risks. We know rocks and netting won’t stop a raging water.”