NZ govt threatens to sue Rio Tinto

Ben McKay

New Zealand's environment minister has threatened Australian mining giant 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.

Environment minister David Parker said the company "had a history of crying wolf" to government to earn concessions and he'd "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," Mr Parker told Radio NZ.

Rio Tinto has stored waste from its majority-owned Tiwai Point aluminium smelter in a disused paper mill in the South Island town, an hour away.

That waste is hazardous, 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 gradually remove the waste over a number of years.

Last week, local council executive Stephen Parry said he'd reached a deal "based on a good old-fashioned Southland handshake" to speed up the move - only for Rio Tinto to back out.

Rio Tinto is yet to respond on that charge, saying only it had cooperated with the "long-standing plans", remained committed to removing the material, and would spend $1.75 million on that task.

Mr 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.