Taranaki meat company charged for ammonia spill that killed thousands of eels

By Jessica Tyson

Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Ruanui has welcomed the decision of the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) to lay charges against Silver Fern Farms (SFF) for its role in the largest fish kill in the region’s history.

On February 19 this year SFF released, without authorisation, an estimated four tonnes of ammonia into the atmosphere at its beef processing plant at Hāwera.

The water used to minimise the impact of the ammonia plume entrained the ammonia and contaminated water was discharged to the Tawihiti Stream, causing a major fish (tuna) kill over about a 13km reach.

Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Ruanui kaiarataki  (and Māori Party co-leader) Debbie Ngarewa-Packer says, “As kaitiaki of the Tawhiti Stream, we have been working with Taranaki Regional Council to hold Silver Fern Farms to account for this environmental disaster and, given the scale of the devastation, it’s the right decision to lay charges.”

She says the ammonia leak killed thousands of tuna.

“This was devastating for our people who have spent decades restoring tuna populations and who see tuna as kaitiaki and a barometer of our health as a people.”

Taranaki iwi 'devastated' after thousands of eels killed by ammonia spill / Te Ao - February 2020

When the leak occurred in February, Ngāti Ruanui put a rāhui on the awa and started working with local authorities to hold SFF to account and protect the tuna and their ecosystems.

“The impacts on the environment and our kaitiaki relationships with the awa cannot be overstated - tuna were found dead for weeks after the spill," she says.

“We welcome the council’s decision to prosecute not just because it helps us to achieve justice for the Tawhiti and our tuna but also because it sends a signal to industry that waterways and the natural environment cannot be treated as a dumping ground for toxic substances."

In a statement to Te Ao in February, Silver Fern Farms said it was,“deeply disappointed this has happened given our commitment to our environment and the stream restoration work we had carried out on the Tawhiti stream."

Its focus at the time was on the clean-up and to ensure no more harm was caused.

“We take our responsibility around our environment and our engagement with the local community seriously and have met with Ngāti Ruanui people to work with them to put this right.”

Ngarewa-Packer says although the ammonia is gone the lasting effects on the health of the stream could be felt for years.

“We are working on a plan to replenish the fish stocks but we should never have been put in this position if adequate safety measures and robust water containment systems had been there,” she says.