National | Gisborne

Te Araroa locals warned dump would erode into Awatere River

Rubbish from the old dump in Te Araroa is being swept into the Awatere River following weeks of rain. Photo/Ripeka Irwin

For Te Araroa locals Ripeka Irwin and Tina Ngata, the opening up of the dump at the mouth of the Awatere River is heart-breaking and a frustrating issue they say has been decades in the making.

Storm surges have been breaching the landfill site for years, and both Irwin and Ngata say concerns were raised annually with Gisborne District Council, and as recently as three weeks ago in anticipation of a weather event of this magnitude.

The dumpsite is located at Keke Pōhatu on the mouth of the Awatere River, the ancestral river of Māori in Te Araroa.

The river and coastline are a food source for local whānau, and the river mouth is also a sacred site for the hapū where famed leader Tūwhakairiora would train his warriors for battle.

Irwin and Ngata say the community was always opposed to this being the location of the dump but its concerns were ignored by the council of the day.

“When the site was retired the community wanted it taken away but, again, the council didn’t listen, and instead they just filled it in. For years we have been asking through hui, letters, and emails to have the dump removed in a controlled manner.”

The requests came with warnings that if the site wasn’t removed, the sea would do it instead, which is what has happened over the past three days following periods of heavy downpour and erosion in the region.

“We understand Gisborne District Council is carrying out an urgent investigation into the issue and will be installing emergency measures to protect the site from further erosion, whilst mid and long term solutions are sought”, Irwin and  Ngata said in a statement.

The landfill site in Te Araroa, 170km north of Gisborne, has been closed for about 15 years.

Local members of the community have been helping to clean up some of the rubbish, which includes household waste, solvents, paints and car batteries.

Council staff were on-site yesterday and today and members of the community have been providing staff with regular updates.

“It appears the site’s face has been eroded by the river, exposing rubbish on the riverbank,” said Andrew White, Council’s director of liveable communities.

“We are urgently assessing what we can do to prevent rubbish from entering the river in the short term, and stabilising the site for the longer term.

“We will update the community as soon as we have more information.”

Irwin and Ngata say they appreciate that council is responding to the emergency now "but this is after years of community concern being expressed, and ignored."

"We watched the disaster unfold at Fox River and knew that it could happen to us too, and we asked back then, again, to remove the waste from our river mouth.”

“We can only hope that the solutions being put in place now are enough to avoid another Fox River disaster and that this time they will hear our concerns and begin the process of removing the waste altogether.”

Water damage to landfills has occurred in several areas around the country over the past few years including three in Christchurch, which needed repairs. Another in Wellington near Houghton Bay, which was filled from the 1950s to 1970s, began leaking fluids including petrol.

But the worst was in Westland where toxins and rubbish floated downriver, washing up about 300 kilometres along South Westland's pristine beaches and strewn through the native bush.

Loads of car tyres, old shoes, burnt plastic and tiny milk bottles were among the waste, leaked from an old Westland District Council rubbish dump beside the Fox River that closed in the early 2000s.