Waiuta: toxic tourist attraction

Waiuta: toxic tourist attraction

A visit to a romantic ghost town gives one impression: a Google search quite a different picture.  A few weeks back, the Nelson camera club organised a field trip to Reefton.  Someone suggested we look at Waiuta, a historic mining town near Ikamatua.  Wikipedia describes Waiuta  as “one of New Zealand’s most popular ghost towns and a great tourist attraction” and the entry continues in rather romantic and nostalgic terms.

Waiuta grew up around a gold mine, starting in 1905 and continuing for almost 50 years. At its peak there were 600 people living there, but here’s the scene today:

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The stack in the middle distance marks the location of the pithead, surrounded by the runs of the boiler house and processing plant. I wandered up the hill behind me, to a much deeper shaft and the remains of a gold recovery plant.  It was called the Prohibition mine. Here’s what it looked like in 1938:

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The area is well signposted (someone was very interested in the engineering involved) .  What caught my attention however was the small warning sign:

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That sight took me back more than 40 years when, as a young chemical engineer, my job was to track down and eliminate chemical pollution of the environment from a large pulp and paper mill. That’s an interest which has never really left me. So I kept my eyes open as I walked the path.  Soon I came across this:

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The white crystalline deposits looked very suspicious, I wonder what they were? A short distance further on the something even more exciting: a large tailings dump draining into a small open sump, with the overflow led off downhill in a 6 inch PVC drain pipe. I wonder whether it’s going?

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Fenced off amongst the ruins of the processing plant was another sign:

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So what was going on here?  If I had a smart phone with me, I could have found out on the spot. Instead I had to wait I got home before uncovering a really interesting back story.

In 2005, a postgrad student was looking for a topic for her PhD. Laura Haffert took some samples from the site for analysis. When she found incredibly high concentrations of arsenic she had also found her Ph.D. topic. When she told the Department of Conservation they acted promptly and these signs appeared. There is an excellent description of the problem, together with links to the scientific papers coming out of this work, on the Te Ara ‘Signposts’ blog.

The writer, Simon Mason, described the Waiuta story as “an amazing example of how little concern some organisations had for the health of their workers’.  He’s right.

Last year the government announced plans to clean up the site, at a cost of $600,000. Here’s a newspaper report of that announcement, but a news item from research company CRL Energy is much more informative. So much so that I have taken the liberty of copying an extract from it here:

In July, the Environment Minister Amy Adams and Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith announced the Government’s commitment to clean-up an old gold mining site polluted with arsenic at Waiuta on the West Coast.

“Testing at this old mine site in the Victoria Forest Park has identified very high levels of arsenic in the soil and water that poses a risk to people and the environment. The site has been fully fenced but we need to get on and clean-up the contamination to protect the wider environment,” says Dr Smith.

CRL Energy scientists are very familiar with the site, having been instrumental in evaluating the data to determine the risk it posed to people and the environment, and in preparing the remedial action plan for the site.

Environmental scientist, and co-author of several papers regarding the site, Dave Trumm says the site is probably the most toxic in New Zealand , “If you ingest about a fingernail size amount of dust from the site that could be fatal, a child would need even less. Drinking 500ml of water from the site would be fatal. This is why it is a priority for cleanup.”

So it’s obvious that the warning signs are perhaps a little understated. I guess no one wants to scare the tourists away.

During the weekend I spent quite a bit of time exploring the roads and trails around Reefton.  Many or most of the small side roads heading off into the bush had padlocked gates.  Signs advised that this was a hard-hat area, industrial site, etc so permission was required before entering. Seeing the huge mess left behind by mining operations 50 years ago, I found myself wondering how much we have improved? Legislation and regulations can only go so far. I know from my experience in heavy industry that it’s the behaviour of people that counts, especially how they respond to commercial pressures.

Links:

DoC description of Waiuta as a heritage site

Waiuta website

Te Ara Signposts

Otago University page on Reefton’s environmental issues

Papers by Laura Haffert and David Craw:

Mineralogical controls on environmental mobility of arsenic from historic mine processing residues, New Zealand‘Applied Geochemistry 23, pp. 1467–1483.

‘Processes of attenuation of dissolved arsenic downstream from historic gold mine sites, New Zealand.’ Science of the Total Environment 405, pp. 286–300.

‘Field quantification and characterization of extreme arsenic concentrations at a historic mine processing site, Waiuta, New Zealand.‘ New Zealand Journal of Geology & Geophysics 52, pp. 261–272.

 

 

 

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