A group of residents living on a rugged patch of coastline at the bottom of the South Island are worried about the future of their crumbling scenic road. Concerns are also mounting over the ecological impact of a dump site directly behind the road, just metres from the ocean. Local Democracy Reporter Matthew Rosenberg reports.
Colac Bay is a small town and popular surfing spot 40km west of Invercargill. It is home to about 60 permanent residents and a burgeoning summer population.
But those who call the place home year-round have more to worry about than their surf break getting overcrowded.
Concerned residents say their neglected coastal road is just one big storm away from triggering an ecological nightmare.
A 60-year-old dump site, which the Southland District Council (SDC) admits it does not know the contents of, is nestled right next to a disintegrating road.
Resident Kevin Mulqueen has been living in the region for 40 years and does not mince his words.
“The dump is an issue. We don’t want another Fox River,” he says, referring to the Fox Glacier landfill which was ripped open by floods in March 2019.
That disaster cost $500,000 to remedy, plus thousands of hours of volunteer time.
Similar sentiments are echoed by Alan McKay who lives on a hill overlooking Colac Bay, saying his doorstep is home to blue cod, whales and Hector’s dolphins.
In his patch of paradise, he and wife Deen describe the idyllic beach as one of the prettiest views in Southland. It is the safest swimming area east of Haast, they say.
But a walk along the stony shoreline proves something is not quite right.
Large rocks that line Colac Foreshore Rd protect against the ocean, but stop where it appears to matter most – right in front of the old dumping site.
The council says a report received from Niwa suggested rocks positioned at that point would create more water disturbance.
At opposite ends of Colac Foreshore Rd, concrete blocks now barricade against traffic which once passed through. The tarseal beyond that point has crumbled away, revealing loose stones dropping off to shingly beach below.
“We want the road reopened, that’s the goal. But the primary focus is fixing the dump situation,” Mrs MacKay says.
She says residents used to take gravel from the site, dump their refuse, then backfill.
The old tip has since been returned to Oraka Aparima Runaka, and regenerated with shrubs.
But the issue remains: nobody knows what has been put into it.
The trio share the same fear: that erosion will eventually cut through what is left of the road and wash toxic waste out to sea.
“The dump site has been here 60-odd years, as long as I’ve been here,” Mr McKay says.
“In four or five years, that’ll be going out to sea.”
So why has something not been done to secure it?
The trio, who form part of the Colac Bay Erosion Committee, are asking the same question.
They say they gave Southland District Mayor Gary Tong the tour, but he lost enthusiasm several years ago.
A Southland District Council spokesman says that is not the case.
“Mayor Tong has been following the issue closely and will continue to do so.”
The group also claim one of the issues is a lack of geotextile netting – a protective layer placed under the large rocks forming protection against the ocean along along the road.
The netting only went so far, and so did the rocks, some of which came from the McKay family farm.
Now they are worried one big storm could blow the whole thing open.
Speaking from Wellington via a video feed on Wednesday, Cr Paul Duffy highlighted the issue of Colac Bay, at the SDC’s long-term plan meeting.
SDC group manager of services and assets Matt Russell said $150,000 had been put aside to do a district-wide assessment of retired landfills, which would include Colac Bay.
That will not happen until year three of the plan however and, with 45 to 50 landfills in the region, Cr Duffy was not satisfied.
“We need to make the investigation of that one [Colac] a priority,” he said.
Cr Karyn Owen agreed, saying the site had eroded one metre in 18 months.
“Year three, we’re going to be looking at a potential disaster,” she said.
According to a statement released by SDC, the site was formerly a gravel pit and became a Southland County Council rubbish tip.
The council says it does not know what is in the site.