Firm fined after ‘forever’ chemicals discharged into Whangārei Harbour

View from WWII gun emplacement above Urquharts Bay, looking towards Marsden Point and Whangarei Harbour.

PFAS foams were discharged into Whangārei Harbour by Channel, which a judge described as extraordinary.
Photo: Kennedy Warne

A major company has been fined for letting banned and harmful ‘forever’ chemicals get into Whangārei Harbour in what a judge calls an “extraordinary” act.

The former Marsden Pt refinery, now called Channel Infrastructure, pleaded guilty to 14 charges.

It used up to 60,000 litres of foam made with longlasting PFAS chemicals for firefighter training seven times last year.

How much got into the harbour is not known.

The Whangārei District Court fined Channel $169,000.

A court summary of facts shows a whistleblower within the company raised the alarm in June 2021.

“In accordance with the defendant’s whistleblowing policy, the board and senior management were alerted that a banned substance may have been used in the training exercises. All remaining training exercises were halted,” the summary said.

The company then alerted the regional council.

The summary said it had already looked at getting rid of all its stocks of PFAS foam, in 2017, but chose not to.

Storing foam and its use as a “last resort” on fires is allowed, but training with it is banned.

“Legacy PFAS fire fighting foam remained available so it could be accessed and used if required in the case of an emergency as the law contemplates.”

It was labelled PFAS, but got used anyway, the summary said.

A consultant’s report in late 2021 concluded “there was a low risk to people and ecological receptors caused by PFAS discharges from the refinery into surface water and groundwater” and that it was not in the shellfish.

Long-term effects are unknown.

Judge J Smith said systems were set up to prevent this, but failed.

“Its use on seven occasions for training can only be described as extraordinary,” the Environmental Protection Authority quoted the judge saying in a statement today.

RNZ last August revealed the investigation into the illegal discharges, after obtaining a report for the company carried out by a private investigator.

Channel Infrastructure said it accepted the sentence and had taken the matter seriously.

“With the PFAS firefighting foam now being permanently removed from site, this will not happen again,” it said.

“We are disappointed our onsite standing instructions as to the use of the PFAS firefighting foam were not followed, and have since strengthened the monitoring and our on-site enforcement.”

Tests showed there were no concentrations of the chemicals in the environment afterwards.

“We have also undertaken prompt actions to improve the environment in the area, beyond remedying the discharge of the PFAS foam, and have been working on this with our Iwi partners, Patuharakeke.

It no longer has an on-site fire-fighting training facility.

Firefighter training is proven as one of the leading causes of PFAS pollution worldwide.

Human-made per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances pose a threat at the level of a drop in an Olympic-sized pool, last for centuries at least, and are linked to various cancers and health conditions, though local authorities say the health research remains inconclusive.

The EPA said the old, banned firefighting foams can cause serious land and water contamination.

“That’s why there is international agreement on the need to address these ‘forever chemicals’.

“These substances don’t break down – they build up and bioaccumulate over time in living organisms, including in terrestrial and marine mammals.”

PFAS foams – typically containing PFOA or PFOS – are banned from use in training, but can still be used on fires.

New Zealand public agencies and companies have breached the rules for years, till a crackdown sparked by belated Defence Force investigations in 2017-19.

Further restrictions on PFAS kick in next month: After that, use of firefighting foams (without damming and collecting it) containing PFOA, for example at the scene of a plane or truck crash, will be banned.

A complete phase-out is from 2025, when no PFAS firefighting foams will be able to be used at all.

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