"They've turned New Plymouth into a dumping ground for their waste--marine, airborne and onshore," Andrew Gibbs told the Militant in a phone interview. Gibbs, along with Roy Drake and others, has been investigating the issue for several years.
Drake, who has multiple sclerosis and has lived in the area for 45 years, has compiled a map with 25 red dots showing others with multiple sclerosis who live within one kilometer of the Dow plant. "You hit 60 here and any days after that, you count them," Drake said.
The campaign comes at the same time as Vietnam War veterans are pressing the government for improved health care and social welfare benefits for themselves and their families. The veterans are suffering the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange used by the imperialist forces led by Washington in their assault on the people of Vietnam. The New Zealand government to date has not acknowledged a connection between Agent Orange and these health problems.
The Dow plant was the target of protests during the Vietnam War because of its production of the components used to make Agent Orange.
Activists in New Plymouth have formed the Dioxin Investigation Network and the Dioxin Investigation Action Group. They organized two large public meetings to demand answers to their concerns and compensation to cover medical bills and the costs of their devalued properties. "We want to raise awareness among the community about what has gone on," said Gibbs. "To raise awareness of the government whitewashes and lies, not only in New Plymouth but with the Vietnam vets and other dioxin-affected groups, such as the spraying contractors and timber workers."
Timber workers and their unions have been raising concerns for some years over the health effects of the fungicide pentachlorophenol (PCP), containing dioxin, used in timber treatment. The New Zealand Herald reported February 16 that an estimated 286 sawmill and timber treatment sites are contaminated by PCPs and dioxins. Timber workers and union representatives have joined New Plymouth residents at the recent meetings.
On March 1, 80 people, led by a small group of Vietnam War veterans, and including timber workers' union representatives, marched to the plant gates in protest.
The Dow plant, originally Ivon Watkins Ltd, was built in 1960, before the adjacent land was subdivided for houses. It employed several hundred workers, producing agricultural chemicals, including the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, which were extensively used in farming. Dioxin is a by-product of the manufacture of 2,4,5-T. Agent Orange is made from a mixture of the two chemicals.
In 1987, the plant became the last in the world to stop making 2,4,5-T after growing concerns about the health effects of its dioxin by-products, in particular the cancer-causing compound TCDD. Today it employs around 70 people in blending and packaging.
Dioxins are a highly toxic family of chemicals produced through a range of industrial processes including timber treatment, pulp and paper manufacture, and waste incineration. They accumulate in the fat and tissues of people and wildlife and cause the immune and hormonal systems to malfunction.
New Plymouth residents have been raising health concerns for more than 30 years, fueled by a 1972 explosion at the plant, and leaks at a company dump in 1982. Gibbs explained that a number of ex-workers from the plant have also come forward with health problems, and cites a 1990 study that showed a 30 percent increase in cancer rates among these workers.
Company denies risks
A series of government inquiries and reports have claimed to show no links between the plant's operation and illnesses suffered by nearby residents. The company has denied that discharges from the plant have posed health or environmental risks. A 1999 inquiry also ruled there was no connection between Vietnam veterans' military service and health problems suffered by their children.
In recent years, the World Health Organization has concluded that dioxins, especially TCDD, are far more toxic than was previously thought. The Environment Ministry reported last year that New Zealand residents' intake of dioxin is 70 times above the daily limit recommend by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The campaign against dioxin contamination in New Plymouth has thrown a spotlight on other contaminated sites around the country, denting the "clean, green" image of the country promoted by New Zealand's rulers. A 1992 report for the Ministry for the Environment concluded that 7,200 locations in New Zealand were contaminated by toxic chemicals, with 1,580 of them being "high risk."
To date, all the government has offered working people in New Plymouth is to test 100 Paritutu residents for dioxins.
"They're the acceptable casualties of productivity," said Gibbs of those affected. "To bring pressure on government will take everyone to do this--we need everyone's support."
Felicity Coggan is a member of the National Distribution Union in Auckland.
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