Paradise Under Threat: the Contamination of Mapua – 1945-1988

The story of Mapua is a classic example of the long-term consequences of mankind’s cavalier disregard for the natural environment. Mapua is one of the small, tranquil communities perched on the coastline of New Zealand’s Tasman Bay – renowned for its wonderful beaches, benign Mediterranean climate and idyllic landscape of olive trees and vineyards, woods and orchards, with a backdrop of hazy blue lulls in the distance. Mapua should be an earthly paradise but, some 20 years ago, woke up to the worm in its paradisiacal apple.

In 1932, the Fruitgrowers Chemical Company built a plant to manufacture pesticides and from 1945 onwards the company began to produce a range of more than 80 different pesticide compounds involving 124 different chemicals. These included DDT, paraquat, organomercuiy and organochlorine pesticides. The risks associated with these hazardous compounds were not fully understood, and for years they were continually flushed through waterways, leaching into the ground and contaminating the foreshores of the estuary.

The plant, in the middle of a residential area and next to the estuary itself, was closed in 1988. It was only when houses were to be built that the full extent of the contamination became apparent. A1999 project to clean up the 5.5 hectare (14 acre) site went horribly wrong. Mapua residents were appalled to discover that the clean-up operation had not been properly monitored, and not only was the ground still badly contaminated but potentially lethal dioxins had been released into the air, mercury had been spread to a wider area, and quantities of copper had leached into the groundwater and estuary.

The contamination of Mapua has been called New Zealand’s greatest toxic disaster. It is a supreme irony that New Zealand, the world’s greatest champion of ‘greenness’, should countenance such delay in making Mapua safe.

When: Contamination 1945-1988; botched clean-up in progress from 1999 onwards

Where: Mapua, Tasman Bay, South Island, New Zealand

Toll: The whole saga has been educational. Mapua has caused scientific, sociological, political and economic text books to be rewritten as the environmental implications become more properly understood.

That’s great, but it hasn’t yet restored faith in its non-hazardous attractions for residents and visitors, nor convinced its faraway consumers of the safety of its luscious produce. Mapua’s disaster is less what has happened, and more what could yet happen.

You should know: After several years of buck-passing, the ground-remediation contractors have withdrawn, the government’s finite promise of ‘help’ for the operation has lapsed, and the site is now controlled again by the local council – and since all the legal consents necessary to monitor a second clean-up (or sealing) have also lapsed, Mapua is pretty well back where it started, but better informed. It’s becoming a modern parable.

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