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New Zealand threatens to sue Rio Tinto after floods threatened toxic waste | World news


New Zealand’s environment minister has threatened the mining conglomerate Rio Tinto with legal action over what he says is an “outrageous” failure to deal with toxic waste from an aluminium plant.

Recent South Island floods – in which the waste’s storage facility was nearly inundated, bringing ecological and human tragedy – have infuriated locals in Mataura, where 10,000 tonnes of “ouvea premix” resides.

David Parker, the environment minister, said the company “had a history of crying wolf” to government to earn concessions and he had “had enough”.

“For them to try and escape some responsibility for cleaning up the mess that comes from their own smelter. It’s outrageous. I can’t reconcile it with their statements of corporate responsibility,” Parker told Radio NZ.

Rio Tinto stores the waste from its Tiwai Point aluminium smelter in a disused paper mill in the South Island town, an hour away.

That waste is a class six hazardous substance, capable of generating poisonous ammonia gas when combined with water.

So when flooding ran through Matuara earlier in February, forcing the town’s evacuation and ruining dozens of properties, locals were understandably fearful for the potential for tragedy from the waste.

They believe another six inches of floodwater would have seen the storage facility breached, thereby devastating the town and water catchment.

The waste has remained in Matuara for a number of years after the company which Rio Tinto contracted to remove it went broke.

The government cut a deal with local authorities and Rio Tinto to remove the waste, and last week, local council executive, Stephen Parry, said he had reached a deal “based on a good old-fashioned Southland handshake” to speed up the move – only for Rio Tinto to back out.

Parker said Rio Tinto had a responsibility to New Zealanders to clean up their own mess, foreshadowing a move through the courts if they didn’t.

“Central government agreed to kick in a million dollars, the smelter a bit more than a million dollars and the councils some hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the clean-up started in a major way,” he said.

“We didn’t bring to bear those underlying legal liability issues but maybe we the government should be looking at suing them now. I’ve had enough.

“You know, they talk about preserving grizzly bears in Canada and migrating birds in Australia. Well perhaps they could take the same stance when it comes to the people and the environment of Southland.”

The smelter, located at the very base of South Island near Invercargill, uses around a ninth of New Zealand’s electricity consumption each year.

Rio Tinto has been contacted for comment.

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