rafting tarawera

Tarawera – Swimmable or the Black Drain?

Last week Gareth and I went rafting down a rapid past local rangatahi swimming in the pristine fresh water of the upper Tarawera River. It was so much fun. But below the Ogi and Norske Skogg pulp and paper mills at Kawerau the river becomes brown, sluggish and sad. We discussed the consents that allow the mills to discharge waste to the river with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council this week and pointed out that although the mills are operating inside the law, they are still basically using this river as a drain. By 2034 they have to reduce the discoloration of the lower river to ten tonnes of platinum cobalt ( an ink like substance) per day. Currently they are discharging 18 tonnes of “colour” per day plus mills waste of 7-12.tonnes of wood fibre and other waste. The discharge also includes about 5 tonne per day of organic matter that sucks oxygen out of the river when it breaks down, which makes it hard for fish to breathe.

Tarawera factory and Mt putauaki
Factory on the Tarawera River with Mt Putauaki in the background
Pipes flowing into the Tarawera
Pipes flowing into the Tarawera

The discharges also include toxic chemicals from the pulp and paper production and bleaching  process, which cannot be increased  from current levels but still have daily impact. These chemicals include resin acids, chlorinated chemicals, heavy metals and hydrogen sulphide.

The mills have cut production as demand for paper products slumps, but they continue to use very basic waste treatment and they seem to have little interest in upgrading that will lessen their environmental impact. They could re-invent themselves as 21st century wood product producers by replacing oil-based plastics and they could reuse and clean up their waste stream, but so far there is no sign of this kind of leadership from these multinationals.

swimming tarawera
Kids swimming in the Tarawera River

After our upper river trip we hosted a public meeting in Kawerau to discuss the river. Regional Councillor Tipene Marr, whose whakapapa connects him to Tarawera river, talked about his childhood when the river was literally a plume of toxic foam. Gordon Jackman, who started campagning for clean up of the river in 1982, led us through the science of the consents to discharge to the river. I talked about the Greens’ Swimmable Rivers campaign and the Members Bill I am proposing to protect groundwater, which many New Zealanders rely on for drinking water. The meeting decided that more scrutiny of the mills’ consents is needed and a group will work with the opportunities for stakeholder consultation to raise our concerns and increase pressure for clean up.

We know this river is impacted by dairying downstream as well as the mill pollution and we will keep supporting locals who want to stand up for the lower river.

Let’s make the Black Drain history!

Sign on for swimmable rivers