- Cherie Chapman

A small dedicated team of locals in Southland has fought long and hard to have the aluminium dross produced at Rio Tinto’s Tiwai Point smelter (near Bluff) removed from sites around the region after dross processing company TAHA Asia Pacific went into liquidation. The first challenge was to get the powers that be to stop "duck-shoving" the issue and begin to take collective ownership of the problem.

After several high-level meetings involving key stakeholders including the Ministry for the Environment and NZ Aluminium Smelters (NZAS) - finally held after sustained lobbying - it was agreed to remove the dross from four major sites. All parties invested in total $4 million to get the dross shifted back to Tiwai for processing. The catch? It was to be moved one truckload a week, and was entirely dependent on the processing company Inalco to fit it in with its' other work processing dross produced at the smelter. It would take an estimated six-plus years.

Sort Out The Dross said that this was not acceptable, that it needed to be gone much faster, particularly as the Mataura Paper Mill was in a flood zone. And lo! One of the biggest floods happened in February 2020 and the paper mill was breached. Residents from Mataura were evacuated because of the threat of ammonia gas that would be released if water hit the dross contained in the bags.

Had this substance entered the Mataura River it would have killed all aquatic life, and because of the 4.2* hazardous waste in the mill, which has incidentally been denied by local authorities and NZAS, much of the farmland, aquifers and residential land would have become unusable. *4.2 is an Environmental Protection Authority classification of a type of hazardous waste. Everything in the 4.2 category are "Spontaneously combustible substances and solids that emit flammable gas". Ed.

Residents of Mataura then became very engaged in ridding their town of this waste. They were justifiably angry. An offer by the smelter's Chief Executive Officer, Stewart Hamilton, to have removed it quickly was made to Gore District Council. This was rescinded by Rio Tinto management in Australia, much to the disgust of the locals.

Currently the Environmental Defence Society is taking the issue of ownership of the waste product to the Environment Court for a ruling. Sort Out The Dross believes Rio Tinto has ownership of any material it produces, as it is stated in international law for aluminium smelters that it has a "cradle to grave" responsibility, and that the original contract with TAHA was a tolling only contract. TAHA did not own it. The Covid-19 lockdown slowed the pace of the dross leaving the paper mill. Removal has now started again.

Sort Out The Dross can be contacted on Facebook.


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