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May 12, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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DDT

Mapua’s Toxic Cleanup

The former Fruitgrowers Chemical Company site was the most contaminated in New Zealand, with DDT levels recorded at 1000 times the recommend maximum level. The site was host to a pesticide factory from the 1930s to 1988, which disposed waste into the surrounding Waimea Estuary and buried more waste along the Tahi Street peninsula. Tahi street peninsula ends in Grossis Point, an ancient Maori burial ground and hangi pit site.

The Fruitgrowers Chemical Company was founded in 1931 by Arthur McKee and his sons. The McKees built their factory next to Port Mapua, the export hub for the surrounding pipfruit growers. Initially they produced sprays and lime sulphur, and in 1938 bought a lime quarry on Takaka Hill.

By the end of the Second World War, Fruitgrowers was producing the organochlorine pesticides DDT, DDD and dieldrin. A decade later, they built a separate plant to make the synthetic plant hormone pesticides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D (the main component of Agent Orange). By the end of the 70s, Fruitgrowers’ Mapua operation was the largest pesticide and herbicide producer in Aotearoa, but after their bid for expansion was rejected the plant closed in 1988. This closure meant that no-one took responsibility for the site until 1996, when the Mapua Residents and Ratepayers’ Association pressured the Tasman District Council into acquiring the land.

In 2001, Australian company Thiess Services was brought in to clean up the site. Because transporting the 8040 cubic metres of contaminated soil through residential areas was considered unsafe, and burning the soil onsite was considered unfeasible, Thiess decided to use the Mechano-Chemical Dehalogenation (MCD) technology developed by Auckland company Environmental Decontamination Limited (EDL): essentially, the soil (pre-treated with various chemicals) was put in a big metal cylinder with ball bearings; as the cylinder spun around, the contaminants were bashed out, and the soil was then returned to the ground.

Because Thiess discovered that excavating the site loosened up dust, which then spread on the wind, they had to bring in a water truck to continuously spray the dust out of existence. In 2004, the Ministry for the Environment took over the project, which was completed in July 2007. The whole cleanup cost $6.5 million, with the government contributing seventy per cent on the condition that much of the site become public parkland.

So what’s so bad about DDT?

Organochlorine pesticides bind to organic matter (such as fat) as well as the clay that lies under the site. Because they take a very long time to break down, these pesticides accumulate in insects, then progressively accumulate upwards through the food chain as infected creatures are eaten by larger creatures. They act as ‘endocrine disruptors’, which means that they alter the body’s internal hormones. In low levels this is good, as it kills insects and thus helps fight malaria. But in higher concentrations – such as those found in Mapua – the pesticides alter the mating behaviour of larger creatures. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring argued that they could even cause cancerous tumors in human beings exposed to high levels over an extended period of time. While the extent of this effect has been questioned, subsequent scientific tests show that it does occur – an Environmental Health Perspectives report links childhood exposure to DDT to later life breast cancer.

By Tristan Egarr

In Defence of DDT

The environmental lobby has the death of millions on their hands. Rachel Carson alone should be tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. DDT is a pesticide. It’s poisonous, it can kill shit (insects, generally). The World Heath Organisation deems it to be moderately hazardous. But that’s not a good enough reason to turn the ire of the world upon poor DDT. For anything, a cost benefit analysis must be conducted. And DDT’s benefits far outweighed its costs.

If we were to ban every substance that could possibly be poisonous that was known to man, we would not have very productive or exciting lives. Alcohol would be gone, so would diesel, petrol, aspartame, most preservatives, chlorine in pools, and a whole plethora of chemicals and organic compounds that we have come to rely upon as fundamental building blocks of a growth driven society.

Take agriculture. DDT was invented in 1874, but it was not put into commercial use until the early forties. Before then, farmers around the world could typically expect to see up to 30% of their yearly crop destroyed by the myriad insects that plague our produce industries. DDT changed that. It enabled farmers to extract the most they could out of their crops – which meant more produce, resulting in greater supply, lower prices, and fuller bellies. However farmers are simple folk. And they had this crazy idea that DDT was a panacea. Therefore there was no way they could get too much of a good thing. Unfortunately, you can. The placed FAR too much reliance on the chemical, which resulted in some marginally bad side effects. A result of human error (due to poor scientific education) not the efficacy of the chemical itself.

But why does the environmental lobby have blood on their hands? Because their social lobbying denied the world a solution to one of its biggest problems – malaria in the third world. DDT was a great pesticide. One of the insects it was especially good at smiting was the mosquito. Mosquitoes carry and spread malaria. It was time for those suckers to die. In 1955 the World Health Organization started an eradication campaign using DDT. It removed malaria from Taiwan, much of the Caribbean, the Balkans, parts of northern Africa, the northern region of Australia, and a large swath of the South Pacific. It also reduced rates of the disease in Sri Lanka and India by up to 95%.

The benefits certainly outweighed the cost. But that didn’t seem to matter to the environmental lobby. Under international pressure the DDT program was pulled. Malaria rates returned with a vengeance, and millions upon millions of people have died or were severely debilitated.

Shame on you Rachel Carson. And shame on the environmental lobby for failing to see the larger picture. The world had a golden opportunity to relegate malaria epidemics to the pages of history. Shame on them for demonizing a useful pesticide, whose only failing was that over zealous farmers weren’t given the correct information in how to use it properly.

By Conrad Reyners

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About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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