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Arsenic hell

Family’s rural dream shattered after soil found to be saturated with poison


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The Holbrook family thought they had found their dream home in Carterton four years ago and planned to transform their patch of countryside by growing heritage fruit trees, keeping a vegetable patch, a chicken coop and pig pen.

But Rupert and Heidi Holbrook’s plans were dashed when they realised the chemicals from an historic sheep dip were not simply concentrated by the old woolshed – which they were told needed remediation – but spilled across the surrounding paddocks, just a stone’s throw from the family home.

One soil test taken by the woolshed recorded an arsenic concentration of 530mg/kg, at a depth of 0-15cm.

That is a whopping 31 times the nationally recommended health standard for a lifestyle block of 17mg/kg.

But the paddocks that surrounded the woolshed also breached the recommended level with six soil samples all recording between 138 mg/kg and 380 mg/kg in the paddock that lay between the woolshed and the family home.

When approached by the Times-Age, the Holbrooks said they could not comment because of a confidentially agreement they had signed.

But what played out was revealed to the newspaper after an Official Information Act request was lodged with Carterton District Council.

Those documents show the Holbrooks spotted 121 Andersons Line on the property market in 2013 and, enchanted by a fairy-tale-like cottage and the view of the Tararuas, they bought the property with big plans in mind for what it could be.

They pictured the 1890s cottage on the land becoming a B&B and used TradeMe to buy a family home on the cheap, which was moved all the way from Dannevirke onto the property.

The subdivision they had bought had been approved by Carterton District Council on March 19 in 2013.

The couple had been told by a real estate agent prior to purchase that the sheep dip on the property would need to be remediated.

In an email dated May 13, 2013, Resource Management Planner Solitaire Robertson told Mrs Holbrook sheep dips fell under the hazardous classification in the district plan.

“The other thing to be a little cautious of is that there is a sheep dip on the property, and while further development is allowed, a sheep dip does have a hazardous classification in the district plan and that there is a requirement that subsurface testing is to occur a at development stage and council is to be provided with a suitably qualified environmental engineers report noting that there is no ground contamination, or otherwise.”

Mr and Mrs Holbrook sold the double gable woolshed to people who had agreed to remediate it, and it was removed in 2014, documents show.

With the woolshed gone, they grazed stock on the land and started planting in the nearby contaminated area.

When a soil sample came back from an area near the woolshed showing an arsenic reading of 260mg/kg, red flags were raised and Mrs Holbrook had another sample taken in the paddock that lay closer to the house.

This sample came back at 180mg/kg.

Mrs Holbrook became distressed that the contamination might even be under the family home.

She called the Carterton District Council who referred her to the Great Wellington Regional Council (GWRC).

In an email sent by Mrs Holbrook in September 2016, directed to Carterton Mayor John Booth and councillor Greg Lang, an attachment recalled that interaction with the council – “It seemed strange to me then that the Carterton council was unable to provide us with any information around the process of remediating a sheep dip”.

GWRC asked Mrs Holbrook why the land had not been previously registered as a hazardous site.

That would have automatically triggered the National Environmental Standard for Assessing and Managing Contaminants in Soil to Protect Human Health, which came into an effect in 2012, prior to the property going on the market.

The same standard would have also been essential before the approval of a subdivision for most change of land-use situations.

The council had maintained in discussion with the Holbrooks that they had not needed to have a NES completed because the use of the land was not changing.

That decision which left the Holbrooks puzzled, the documents show, with the couple writing to the council, “Surely the NES was there to protect families from situations like ours?”.

Mr and Mrs Holbrook commissioned two reports and over 50 “costly” soil and water tests across the property.

“The results from the soil tests are distressing and the quotes we have received for soil remediation are crippling,” the attachment read.

“We can’t live there with that level of contamination and just hope our kids won’t get sick and we can’t invest any more money planting out the section and renovating our home knowing the property will have decreased in value.”



It was the original land owner, Alistair Smith, who proved instrumental in helping the Holbrooks.

Mr Smith told the Times-Age this week that he was not aware of the extent of the arsenic in the soil when he sold the land.

“We just went to the council and they approved the subdivision and everything that goes with it,” he said

“We knew there was a dip there but we certainly didn’t do any ground testing to check, we were just doing a subdivision and ticked all the right boxes.”

A land swap has since been organised in which Mr Smith will be taking back the land around the dip, and changing the boundaries on the section for the Holbrooks, so that their section avoids the contaminated area.

“I felt for them, they were virtually left destitute I felt, with land as they saw it not worth a hell of a lot,” he said.

“I do disagree a little bit now, because there are ways around it.”

But what they thought they were buying was not pure, he said.

“When I on-sell it, whoever I on-sell it to they will have all the ground tests, they will know exactly,” Mr Smith said.

“They will go in with their eyes wide open as mine have been opened.”

The land would be retired and planted with natives, he said.

“It was a real worry for us at the time, not knowing how it was going to pan out.”

But he said when everybody concerned had met to talk, it became clear he had not done anything wrong.

He was “happy to see the Holbrooks right” and put them back into a comfortable position.

Mr Smith said he had elected to pay the survey costs.

“I still have a block of land that one day when it’s all finalized I plan on selling and everybody’s happy,” he said.

He had “very little dealings” with the council but was helping with the construction of a driveway that would allow the Holbrooks to have another entrance to their home leading off Connollys Line.

“It’s a drawn-out process, we thought we’d might have had the driveway done last Autumn but it still hasn’t been started,” Mr Smith.

The first step was to get the culvert in, which was being organised by the council.

That did not worry Mr Smith, who said the weather had not been good, but until the culvert was put in he was “going about my own business”.

The metal to form a new driveway would be taken from land owned by Mr Smith and he would provide the digger to get the work done, once the culvert was in.



Carterton District Council chief executive Jane Davis said the council had done the right thing.

“We weren’t aware of the fact that there was a historic sheep dip on the property when we granted subdivision consent,” she said.

“Even if we had have known, our process followed the Resource Management Act requirements.

“Our advice to any potential purchasers of any land is if there is any historic sheep dips to make sure you get it all tested.”

Ms Davis said she suspected it was a national challenge.

“Historic sheep dips are really tricky, they’ll be really tricky right round the country because we just don’t know where they are.

“They were never required to be registered so we don’t hold a record of where they are.

“In fact, as land use changes and people’s ways of operating change these things can be sort of forgotten about by the landowners themselves.

“If we are aware there could be a sheep dip on the property we let any prospective purchasers know through a LIM if they request it.”

In the case of the Holbrooks, they did not get a LIM, but even if they had the council did not know about the sheep dip, she said.

Ms Davis said she was happy with the outcome but would not comment on the settlement.

“The whole agreement to settle the dispute is confidential, so I can’t disclose anything that might or might not be in there.”

Carterton Mayor John Booth said it was unfortunate the site had not been identified earlier.

It was a difficult situation for the family in which they had felt “cornered”.

Everything was done so they could move on with their lives, he said.

“Even though the process took a long time to get there, it did get there in the end.

“And I think everybody worked together in the end to actually get a resolution to this.”

Where it had gotten to now was a relief for the family, he said.

“I’ve seen the relief in them,” he said.

“At the end of the day it was about people, and that’s what we are all here for, to reach a resolve in situations like this.”

There were a lot of farms across the country that had old sheep dips and pot dips on them, he said.

“I guess there is a warning here for people who are buying in rural areas, if there is potentially some form of contaminated site identified, or could be there, it’s probably really worth getting some soil tests done so you do know what’s potentially in the soil.”

Carterton District Councillor Jill Greathead has volunteered to organise the project group that will help construct the new driveway – “as a community I am sure we will get it together, and get it sorted”.

She said she was focussed on what was happening next.

“The only solution is for a caring body of people to come together out of their own volition, without being paid, to try and get something sorted.”

Carterton District Councillor Mike Ashby, who is currently in Spain, said it was an important issue.

“The use of DDT and organophosphates in farming was prevalent up until the 1980s.

“These were the only products available at the time and the implications were unknown.”

The site in question was heavily used for dipping, he said.



Along with being used in dips for sheep, arsenic was part of sprays for fruit trees, particularly apples, for many years in New Zealand and overseas.

The Times-Age has highlighted the issue several times this year, after it was discovered the site of the old Tate’s Orchard in Greytown was contaminated with arsenic.

From 1849 to 1993, it was a legal requirement in New Zealand to dip sheep.

Sheep being put through a swim dip at Ica Station. John Andrew is in the distance while Bill Kitchener holds the crook. PHOTO/WAIRARAPA ARCHIVE
Sheep being put through a swim dip at Ica Station. John Andrew is in the distance while Bill Kitchener holds the crook. PHOTO/WAIRARAPA ARCHIVE

According to the Ministry of Environment (MOE) website, from the mid-1800s the idea of using plunge-type dips was common.

The sheep were pushed through the dip and then drip dried in a holding paddock or on a platform.

As a result, there is an estimated 50,000 former sheep dip sites across the country.

There will also be a limited number of former cattle dip sites.

Arsenic was used from 1840 to 1980, and organochlorine pesticides were used from 1945 to 1961.

In the mid-1940s a power-spray machine was introduced in New Zealand.

According to the MOE website, “Contamination at these dip sites may not have been as severe compared to plunge or swim-through dips because very little dip was wasted and there was hardly any left-over dip to dispose of at the end”.

According to the Ministry of Health, people can swallow small amounts of arsenic every day for a long time without any obvious health effects.

However, swallowing larger amounts of arsenic may be harmful.

“Arsenic poisoning can cause severe health effects, even death.”

It can irritate the stomach and may damage the heart, nerves, liver and blood.

Someone with arsenic poisoning may suffer from stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, extreme tiredness and bruising, abnormal heartbeat, or a ‘pins and needles’ feeling in the hands and feet.

Children who eat soil are at greater risk of arsenic poisoning.





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