Fire at old mill raises fear

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Firefighters at an entrance to the old Mataura paper mill holding toxic 'premix'. PHOTO: LAURA SMITH

A FIRE at the old paper mill in Mataura on Monday prompted concerns and fear from residents due to the toxic ouvea premix stored there.

Fortunately, after assessing the site, a Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) spokesman said there was “no danger of the fire getting near where the ouvea premix is stored”.

Thousands of tonnes of a potentially dangerous chemical known as ouvea premix is stored in the former Carter Holt Harvey paper mill, next to the Mataura River.

When mixed with water, the product can create a toxic ammonia gas cloud.

Emergency services were called at about 1.40pm to the site and more than 30 firefighters worked to extinguish the flames which covered about 10sqm.

The fire was at the hydro generator, which was used to power the paper mill, a FENZ spokesman said.

“The fire is on the floor underneath the premix, approximately 30 metres away.”

However, a resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said her children were freaked out about the incident.

She was told about it by her neighbour.

“He said get back inside, there’s a fire at the paper mill.”

She had lived there for three years and said they needed to fear for their lives with the substance being stored there.

“Especially with the floods, it’s dangerous to have it stored in the middle of a little town.”

Fellow resident Murray Kitto had lived there for six years and liked to follow fire appliances when he heard the sirens go off.

“I like to know what’s going on.”

He followed them to the old paper mill yesterday afternoon.

“I knew what was happening when I saw the smoke coming out.”

Sort out the Dross action group spokeswoman Laurel Turnbull said it was scary for people every time something happened at the plant.

“We are trying to deal with it. It [ouvea premix] is going — but the sooner it goes, the better.

“As soon as anything goes wrong, emergency services are right into it, so the public can be reassured that the emergency people know exactly what they are dealing with.”

Gore District Council chief executive Stephen Parry said about 15% of the ouvea premix stored at Mataura had been removed so far.

“We have approximately 8500 tonnes stored there at the moment.”

The work — which started in October last year — was expected to be completed in two-and-a-half years.

This incident followed another in June when a broken sprinkler caused about 10cm of water to fall on the building floor, which caused concern about potential toxic gas.

The ouvea premix, a byproduct of production at New Zealand’s Aluminium Smelter (NZAS) at Tiwai Point, was dumped at the mill without resource consent in 2015 by Taha Asia Pacific.

Taha went into liquidation the following year and the waste sat there untouched until March 2018, when government and local councils agreed to a $4 million deal with NZAS to remove and dispose of the waste during a six-year timeframe.

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