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Lyttelton Port told off over reluctance to deal with banned chemical

Thursday 4th April 2019

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The Environmental Protection Agency slapped a compliance order on Lyttelton Port Co for its slow response to the discovery of a banned chemical on one of its tugboats. 

In its first investigation with beefed up powers to monitor hazardous chemicals, the EPA found stores of firefighting foam containing perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) - a banned chemical - across 166 sites nationwide.

Compliance orders were issued to Nelson Airport Fire Service, Nelson Airport and Task Protection Services early in the investigation, and the EPA received response plans on disposing of the chemical last year. 

In January this year, the EPA issued a compliance order to Lyttelton Port after finding the company was reluctant to take any action. The EPA has since received an agreed plan from the port operator. 

EPA chair Allan Freeth stressed that it didn't find any intentional wrongdoing by firms and said that all of the banned chemical discovered was probably imported before the restriction was imposed in 2006. 

"Three compliance orders were issued early in the investigation to reflect the seriousness of the public and environmental issues arising from use of these foams. A later compliance order was served on an operator in response to its reluctance to take action," he said. 

"We were very surprised to find the banned foams at six airports; in equipment owned by two companies that service airports; at three sites controlled by a major oil company; in two tug boats; and at a tyre company," he said. 

In all cases, operators have taken the EPA’s direction and complied with storage and labelling laws, and ongoing environmental risks have been mitigated, Freeth said. 

The EPA said it can't verify full compliance but says it's made substantial progress. It deemed compliance orders were a sufficient sanction and hasn't ruled out issuing more notices if needed. 

The investigation was sparked by the discovery of soil and water contamination at two NZ Defence Force airbases in 2017. The authority embarked on a wider probe in December of that year, starting with the nation's airports and later moving on to ports, refineries, bulk fuel storage, petrochemical sites, and ships and shipping companies. 

Nelson Airport acknowledged the management plan in its 2018/19 statement of intent without quantifying the impact. 

The EPA found a low level of contamination at Auckland International Airport, with foam in storage and removed from operation. Auckland Airport noted the obligation to dispose of the foam in its first-half accounts, saying it expected and had provided for $1.2 million in disposal costs. 

The New Zealand Airports Association welcomed the findings that none of the PFOS foam found posed a risk to the public, and said its member will keep working with the EPA to ensure all of the foam is safely removed and disposed of. 

"In all cases, airports followed EPA direction and compliance orders and complied with legal storage and labelling obligations." chief executive Kevin Ward said. 


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