The Taniwha of the Tarawera

Yesterday (3-2-11) I rafted down the Tarawera River in the Bay of Plenty. As we came around a bend on the river we came across a series of large steel beams sticking out of the water – “The Taniwha of the Tarawera” muttered Tipene Marr stting next to me on the raft.

These steel posts anchor the discharge pipes for the Kawerau pulp and paper mills. A series of pipes run underwater, pumping out 30 tonnes a day of platinum cobalt (1) and god-knows-what, turning black what is usually a clear river upstream. It is the pollution coming out of these pipes that have given the Tarawera the nickname “The Black Drain”. 

Most water pollution in NZ is diffuse agricultural pollution, so it’s rare to come across large industrial point-source pollution. As we floated above the discharge pipes in the raft it wasn’t hard to imagine the presence of a dark malign taniwha sitting below the surface spewing forth poison into the river.

A long struggle

I had started the day at a small hui down near the mouth of the Tarawera at Matata, meeting with David Potter from Ngati Rangitihi who, alongside Tipene Marr, has been struggling to clean up the Tarawera for years. They have just lost the latest Environment Court battle and are facing court costs. Green MP Catherine Delahunty had organised the meeting as she has been fighting to clean up the river for years.

The Environment Court has just ruled that Carter Holt Harvey and Norske Skog can continue to pour 30 tonnes of pollution per day into the Tarawera for another 25 years. This pollution began in 1955. Our resource management laws and courts are failing to protect our environment.

Because, according to the Enviro Court, the pollution causes ‘conspicuous change in the colour and visual clarity’ of the river, the Court could only grant the consents under the exceptional circumstances section 107 of the RMA. And basically the large amount of money involved in the mills was judged to make it an exceptional circumstance. So the mill owners won’t have to invest in technology to recycle and reuse the pollution, they can just keep using the river as a toxic waste disposal system.

The trip

Tipene came on the raft with us, starting above the discharge. The river had quite a lot of sediment  in it, as the rains had washed the soil down from the forestry in the headwaters. So the water wasn’t really really clear as it often is upstream of the mill, and the colour change at the discharge point wasn’t marked as it usually is. Some members of the crew mischeviously suggested that the mill reduced the discharge for our trip – certainly they kept an eye on us with cameras and this is apparently the environment manager watching us.

There is a great little rapid just downstream of the put-in point near Waterhouse Street bridge in Kawerau and further down their were groups of locals enjoying the river (above the discharge).

Further downstream one of the striking aspects was the amount of industrial infrastructure on the river. Here’s one of the many pipes and roads that cross the river.

Below is the intake for the mill – they take on average 10% of the flow before contaminating it and putting it back into the river

This is the first river tour that left me with a headache, I guess from the constant chemical fumes.

There was also a lot of beauty – here are new terraces forming by the geothermal water flowing in from the Savage hotpools (which are quite awesome if you are ever in Kawerau – behind the mill).

It is important to note that the mill is not the only source of pollution in the river. There is also pollution from town sewerage and agriculture. Below you can just see the top of a dairy cow with unfenced access to the river.

And here the fence is left open at the river to allow stock access:

Why we need the NPS

The Court’s  reasoning was also based on the old it’s-so-polluted-anyway-so-a-bit-more-won’t-matter-approach. They wrote that the effects of the pollution on aquatic life “are no more than minor when assessed against the range of natural and modified habitat factors and other water discharges affecting the Tarawera River.” They argued that the lower river had been significantly rechanneled, that there was a lot of agricultural pollution, and town sewerage.

This is all true. But it is also true that by this logic we will never clean up any river.

There is currently no legislative requirement to clean up rivers. The draft National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management that says you need to remove contaminants from rivers is sitting on Nick Smith’s desk while the polluters lobby for nothing to happen. This decision shows once again why we need the NPS.

Thanks to Bruce Webber from More Fun for organising the gear, and thanks to Babs and Alina.


(1) From Environment Court decision: ” [114]  Mr Donald noted with regard to colour that Condition 7.3.3 of the 2003 consent allows the JV to discharge on average a Platinum Cobalt equivalent of 31 tonnes per day to the river. The decision of the Hearings Commissioners advocated an initial step down in the colour limit to 27 tonnes by 2018…”

27 thoughts on “The Taniwha of the Tarawera

  1. Lignin doesn’t reflect light back upwards, it absorbs it. This results in warming of the water.

    For the toxic effects of lignin on aquatic arthropods and bacteria see:

    Pessala et al. (2004) Lignin as the cause of acute toxicity in pulp and paper mill effluents. pp. 319-

    For the effects of Tarawera effluent on the endocrine system of fish see:

    Van den Heuvel et al. (2004) Review of reproductive endocrine effects of a New Zealand pulp and paper mill effluent. pp. 55-

    Both papers are from Borton et al. (eds) 2004 Pulp and Paper Mill Effluent: Environmental Fate and Effects. DEStech Publications.

  2. Russel has done it again – gone off over the top claiming facts, which are in fact not facts but simply a colour equivalancy. He needs to stop listening to Steve Marr (his real name), who outside his own little confined space has zero credibility. As for Catherine, after all these years she still doesn’t understand the difference between ECF and TCF, and I was astonished to see somebody refer to lignin (the glue that holds wood fibres together) as being toxic. The river is “discoloured” because lignin absorbs light, reducing the amount of light reacdhing the river bed and reflecting back upwards, thereby making the water appear dark and discoloured.
    If the Green Part want credibility and votes it needs to start dealing with real facts, rather than simply repeating emotional rubbish from people who haven’t been able to learn anything in the last 20 years of so.
    Give us the smoking gun Russel and Catherine – show us the toxic fish, the poisoned ducks and birds, and the cancer ridden humans that can be shown to have gotten that way due to the mill’s discharges. The people who catch whitebait every year from the Tarawera River mounth have been doing so for ever, and still seem fine to me.
    If Russel can’t do that I suggest he gets off the water, stops being an outdoor poster boy, and spends more time doing the stuff we expect of real MPs.

  3. The likely presence of mutagenic and genotoxic compounds in the discharges into the Tarawera River have long been of interest to me since the day I first caught deformed fish in sea out from the Tarwera river mouth. As has the high cancer rate in the people who have eaten eels and whitebait out of the Tarawera River and fish from the sea outside the river mouth.

    When the Appeal against the discharges into the Tarawera River was heard in the Environment Court I jumped at the opportunity to question the scientific Witness in the on the possible presence and effects of such compounds in the discharges.

    How convenient for the Pulp and Paper Mills that none of the scientists they produced could answer any of my questions on these compounds.

    Given the amount of overseas evidence that such compounds are often present in Pulp and Paper Mill discharges I found it quite extraordinary that in the absence of any evidence on these diabolical compounds that the Court still went ahead and granted the Pulp and Paper Mills their 25 year discharge consents.

  4. db and Drakula quite rightly questioned what Russel originally posted:
    “pumping out 30 tonnes a day of platinum cobalt and god-knows-what”

    Russel then added to his posting to include the quote from the court ruling which includes the word “equivalent”, which makes a huge difference to the meaning, and then suggested that db was wrong. I’m sorry Russel but in this case you were wrong. Without that one word, what you wrote means that the pollution includes platinum and cobalt, even if that was not your intended meaning.

    Nobody is questioning the original data. db didn’t say that the 30 tonne figure was wrong, just that the whole statement was wrong as it was originally written.

    Everyone agrees that the river is in a mess and it shouldn’t be. Let us hope the court does too and throws out the application for costs.


  5. US giant International Paper owns a majority of Kinleith, NZ is receiving around 10c for every tonne of waste produced, how much a tonne of the most toxic material known to mankind is going to costs us in the long run is questionable… It’s most likely going to be more than 10c though, so there is no financial reason to continue with these dangerous dinosaurs.

  6. Todd said:
    “We really need to get rid of these outdated monolith’s.”

    I take it you mean the dinosaurs running the mill? :)


  7. that environmental problems are serious and that we should rebel against them I agree, but the capitalist development is also important. I would like to know how to figure this out a future for Africa without the use of petroleum and coal being the primary energy supply that are of greatest abundance in their territories.

  8. After so many years of campaigning its great to read some of these informed comments about Kawerau and the other taniwha Kinleith. The Tarawera River has been polluted since 1955 when they started using it as a drain. The discharges to air and water have been slowly reduced as a result of activism by people like Tipene Marr and Greenpeace pulp and paper campaigner Gordon Jackman. Up til recently the daily discharge was 150,000 tonnes of waste water containing resin acids(which may negativelty affect the ocean but no one has researched this properly) and all kinds of mill waste products including about 5% chlorinated chemicals from the bleaching of the pulp to produce white paper. Now we are down to 30 tonnes per day and it could be recycled – other pulp and paper mills have gone TCF(totally chlorine free) and closed loop(no discharges off site) but these mills are old and dirty and the companies don’t want to spend the $$ to change and the courts won’t make them because of the role of the mills in the regional economy. Tangata whenua are being sued for costs by the mills for daring to raise these issues in court. But we are not going to give up on this river! Great to have Russel include it in the rivers tour and for people to take notice of this. Trya nd imagine how much pollution is still in the river sediment and the ocean after 56 years of dumping!

  9. If you’re questioning Russel’s quote, you’re questioning the information used to reach a court decision.

    Platinum Cobalt Pt/Co or APHA colour index is a test used to measure colour/pollution, it uses a stock solution with 500 ppm. The range is distilled water with 0 ppm to Pt/Co with 500 ppm to solid. Effluent within a reasonable mixing zone of 500 ppm or 500 mg/kg is my understanding. I’m not aware of any process within a pulp and paper mill that does not pollute the water it uses… Therefore the actual effluent discharge is 17311 Tonnes per day.

    Fish stocks around Kinleith waterways are greatly affected by its pollution. This is mainly located in areas where the most discharge takes place, like Lake Maraetai, but have also been found to affect fish in the Waikato River. Fish within the downstream of effluent discharge have been found to contain Dioxins and are not safe to consume; no official is going to tell you that though. The official conclusion is that a build up of toxins is due to historical releases and more testing needs to be done.

    Because of an increase in temperature from waste, some fish have apparently increased in number. Fish in these areas have been shown to have a disproportionate female/male ratio and studies have shown this is due to discharged chemicals which change their sex from female to male. I’m sure the same effects are found in fish stocks around Kawerau’s mills.

    We only have one planet with one chance to get it right. The devastating effects of excessive pollution from such industries cannot continue.

  10. Anyway it is absolutely disgusting but 32tons of platinum cobalt? Or is it 32 tons of dirty effluent with a % of platinum cobalt?
    That appears to be a little ambivilent Russell.

    Have samples of that water been collected for analysis? And have fish (if they exist) been cought in that stretch of river for the purpose of analysis?

    Don’t get me wrong I am very supportive of this project but the information being presented needs to stand up to scrutiny not only from our trolls but from a criminal regime that seems to be in denial!!!!!

    In short I would like to see Russell’s team with a smoking gun; especially running up to the election.

  11. Estimated total amount of effluent discharge from pulp and paper mills into NZ waterways each year = 10,060,000 Tonnes.

  12. The major categories of water pollution of concern to the pulp and paper industry are: suspended solids (mainly fibre), biological oxygen demand, toxicity and colour.

    The effluent from the bleaching process contains of variety of substances, some of which are known or suspected of being toxic, genotoxic or mutagenic. Chlorinated organics that are produced in the chlorine bleaching processes are of particular concern. Chemicals (especially the dissolved lignin) are detrimental to the environment.

    Colour can be a problem, especially when the effluent is discharged into receiving waters with a high transparency, like New Zealands waterways. Most of the colour derives from the bleaching process, and oxygen delignification. External removal of colour can be carried out, but it is difficult and expensive.

    Gaseous emissions consist of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, chlorine dioxide and reduced sulphur gases. The typical kraft mill odour is due to discharges of hydrogen sulphide, methyl mercaptan, dimethyl sulphide and dimethyl disulphide.

    Waste water generation rates should not exceed 50 m3/t of air-dried pulp (ADP), and levels of 20 m3/t of air-dried pulp (ADP) (or product) should be targeted. For paper mills, effluent discharges should be less than 5 m3/t of ADP. I could not find a m3/t for chlorine plants, but would presume that it is less than 5 m3/t making Kinleith fail to meet recommended effluent discharge recommendations. Considering what that pollution contains, any amount is too much to release into the environment.

    Carter Holt Harvey.

    Kinleith – 2 Kraft Pulp Mills
    2 Paper Machines – Product = 235,000 Tonnes per annum (TPA)
    1 Pulp Dryer – 420,000 TPA

    Total product 655,000 TPA – Effluent discharge = 3,102,500 TPA. Just under 5 m3/t.

    Penrose – (uses paper given for recycling, not wood chips or logs)
    1 Paper Machines – 67 000 TPA

    Whakatane – Pulp mill
    1 Paperboard machine – 80 000 TPA

    Kawerau – Pulp Mill
    3 Paper Machines – 55 000 TPA

    2 Paper Machines – 25 000 TPA

    Tasman Pulp and Paper Company Limited.
    3 Paper Machines – 400 000 TPA
    2 Mechanical Pulp Mills – 315 000 TPA
    2 Kraft Pulp Mills – 290 000 TPA

    Pan Pacific Forests Industries (NZ) Ltd.
    1 Pulp Mill – 125 000 TPA

    Wastewaters are usually discharged at a rate of 20–250 cubic meters per metric ton (m3/t) of ADP. They are high in biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), at 10–40 kg/t of ADP; total suspended solids, 10– 50 kg/t of ADP; chemical oxygen demand (COD), 20–200 kg/t of ADP; and chlorinated organic compounds, which may include dioxins, furans, and other adsorbable organic halides, AOX, at 0–4 kg/t of ADP.

    Waste water from chemical pulping contains 12–20 kg of BOD/t of ADP, with values of up to 350 kg/t. The corresponding values for mechanical pulping wastewater are 15–25 kg BOD/t of ADP.

    For chemimechanical pulping, BOD discharges are 3 to 10 times higher than those for mechanical pulping. Pollution loads for some processes, such as those using non wood raw materials, could be significantly different. Phosphorus and nitrogen are also released into wastewaters.

    The main source of nutrients, nitrogen, and phosphorus compounds is raw material such as wood. The use of peroxide, ozone, chlorine and other chemicals in bleaching makes it necessary to use a complexing agent for heavy metals such as manganese. All pretty dangerous stuff.

    We really need to get rid of these outdated monolith’s.

  13. db, you really should start by asking where the stat of 30 tonnes a day came from, rather than assuming that the stat is incorrect and then making silly assertions.
    I have updated the post by putting in the reference to the paragraph in the Environment Court decision from where I got the figure. The Enviro Court may well be wrong but I think it’s unlikely. More likely db that you are wrong.

  14. I did an aerial photoshoot of the Bay of Plenty 12 years ago, and there was a giant black koru of toxic poison stretching out into the bay at the Tarawera River mouth.

    What’s changed since 1998?

  15. The geothermal activity that is very near the mills outflow (probably designed this way to cover any increases in River temperature due to mill discharge) consists of 0.17 m3/s or 14688 m3/day. That’s 0.5% of the rivers volume which is an average of 293760 m3/d. The geothermal waste water discharged from the mill consists of a further 0.2 m3/s or 17280 m3/d. This is not meant to include effluent discharge. Geothermal activity seems to be used as a scapegoat to mask pollutant discolouration from the mill.

    The actual allowable amount of effluent/pollution discharge to the River is 31 Tonnes per day. The total amount of discharge is 17311 Tonnes per day.

  16. The amount of pollution Kinleith produces is far more than 85,000 t/d.

    Kinleith’s discharge into our waterways may have reduced somewhat since 2004 but this is due to new massive sludge pits (check it out on Google earth) coming online which allows evaporation and absorption into the earth, thus reducing the overall amount released but increasing the toxicity of that 85,000 t/d of effluent released into our water ways.

  17. Sorry for any miscalculation Trevor29. I used an internet converter which converted 85000 m/3 to 30017.466713265 ton registers… Not 85000 m/3 = 89105.652581122 tun or wait for it…

    85000 Tonnes per day from Kinleith alone

    That adds up to a shit load of polluted effluent in our waterways. (Sourced from a scientific review done into discharges from Kinleith in 2006).

    Discharged waste water contains many dangerous substances and does have relevance within this context. I have not calculated the increased weight because of heavier than water substances within the conversion.

    Mill effluent goes into our waterways. It discolours water, and reduces the amount of oxygen present. Solids in the effluent may coat the riverbed. Chlorine and its derivatives, producing dioxins and other contaminants, as well as many other highly dangerous substances are also known to be present in pulp and paper waste water.

    Pollution kills plants and other life in our rivers. In 1997, Environment Bay of Plenty described life on the bottom of the Tarawera River, used by the Tasman mills, as “Completely obliterated”, although they have done nothing to alleviate the situation.

    dbuckley – The substance known as Platinum Cobalt or Pt/Co does not contain Platinum. I also believe that if 30 Tonnes a day is not the correct amount, it is probably a low estimate. Perhaps do some research before wading in next time huh!

    With the amount of pulp and paper mills we have in New Zealand and the fact that they can do whatever the hell they want, this is a very serious issue indeed.

  18. It does not contain Platinum dbuckley

    Just quoting the original article, not my original words.

    …platinum cobalt and god-knows-what…

  19. Todd – how do you get a figure of 30017 tonnes/day from 85000 cubic metres/day? One cubic metre (1000 litres) of water weighs one tonne (1000kg). But it isn’t the water that is the problem, so its weight is meaningless in this context.


  20. I believe the post mentioning Platinum Cobalt is in reference to the colour standard used to test waste water. Pt/Co has a health rating of 3, which is severe, it contains Hydrogen Chloride, a highly hazardous substance in its mixture. It does not contain Platinum dbuckley.

    There are also significant mercury levels as well as dioxin in fish because of the toxic releases from pulp and paper mills. You wouldn’t catch me going anywhere near that water.

  21. Russel’s not the only one to feel unwell from this fact finding mission. Don’t kid yourself about our clean and green image; New Zealand has a serious environmental pollution problem. Let’s put that 30 Tonnes a day into perspective shall we…

    Kinleith Mill’s discharge consent allows for a waste water discharge volume of up to 165000m3/d, of which it was originally expected that up to 155000m3/d may be discharged to the Kopakorahi Stream and 10000 m3/d to the Waituna Stream. Through recent modernization discharge has now reduced to 85000 m3/day. This equates to 30017 Tonnes each day.

    Half of discharged waste comprises of condensate waste water, the other half is made up of thousands (too many to list here) of the most dangerous and poisonous substances known to mankind. Some of these dangerous substances are released at levels that often well exceed any worldwide safety guidelines. There is no proper monitoring and any breaches are ignored.

    But it’s not just our waterways they’re polluting; our air gets a good hammering as well:

    Hydrogen Sulphide: Carcinogenic, Gas is heavier than air. Exposure symptoms: Cardiovascular or blood toxicant, neurotoxicant, reproductive toxicant, respiratory toxicant, H25 irritates eyes at 50 ppm and causes death at 100 ppm to 300 ppm. Rapid loss of sense of smell on exposure to gas concentrations above 150 ppm.

    Dimethyl Sulphide: Severe eye irritant. Harmful if inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through skin.

    Methyl Mercaptan CH35H: Chemical Asphyxiant. Odour: Rotten cabbage. Gas is heavier than air and may travel along the ground. Substance decomposes on burning producing toxic fumes including Sulphur Dioxide and Hydrogen Sulphide. Reacts badly with strong oxidants. Reacts with sunlight, water, steam, or acids to form flammable and toxic gas. Forms explosive mixtures with oxygen at low levels.

    Dimethyl Sulphide:

    (International Programme on Chemical Safety) Exposure symptoms: Irritates eyes and respiratory tract. May cause adverse effects on the central nervous system, resulting in respiratory depression. High levels of exposure may result in unconsciousness and/or death. Effects may be delayed.

    (US Dept. of Labour Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Coughing, sore throat, shortness of breath, headaches, nausea and unconsciousness. Pulmonary Edema (Delayed). CS effects: Narcosis, Cyanosis and Seizures. Respiratory failure.

    (Intergas Safety Data) Exposure symptoms: Fatigue, Mucous membrane irritation of lips mouth and nose. May affect central nervous system causing muscle weakness, tremors, narcosis, convulsions, unconsciousness, paralysis of the respiratory tract, cyanosis, coma and death. Chronic blood and lung effects: Liver injury has been documented after inhalation. Exposure to 4 ppm for several hours results in headaches and nausea.

    And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There have been no studies done into multiple gas exposure and their synergistic effects on the human organism. But hey! The export dollar is worth more than peoples health isn’t it?

  22. The Kawerau mill taps a geothermal resource for heat. Are the fluids from the geothermal wells reinjected into the geothermal field or are they discharged into the river including their dissolved minerals?


  23. Whereas I agree with the overall sentiments of this article, and in particular the comment “by this logic we will never clean up any river”, the statement “pumping out 30 tonnes a day of platinum cobalt and god-knows-what” is pure bullshit; almost all of what is “pumped out” of the plant was exactly whats pumped in. If even a tiny fraction of what came out was platinum then there would be a platinum recovery plant built right there to extract that value.

    Whereas this post is guaranteed to pick up red ticks, there is an underlying serious point: We all know that the 30 tons comment is bullshit, so now everyone knows (once again) that the Greens are full of shit.

    Thus a really interesting and important article is rendered worthless and instantly dismiss-able by using rhetoric rather than facts.

    Damned shame.

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