Toxins In The Timber Mills

The remarkable struggle of Joe Harawira and the Sawmill Workers Against Poisons shows it will take more than good rules to keep workers and the environment safe

by Alison McCulloch
Photo images courtesy “The Green Chain”/Scottie Productions.

It’s the shocking workplace tragedies like Pike River that get the big headlines – and Royal Commissions – as of course they should. But year after year, decade after decade, a drip, drip, drip of unnecessary injury, illness and death goes on, each case treated as an outlier, an individual tragedy, not something representative of a wider systemic failing. The same, too, can be said of environmental disasters, like the wreck of the Rena, the Ivon Watkins Dow dioxin legacy in Taranaki, pollution in Lake Horowhenua, Te Aroha’s toxic Tui mine. That list, too, could go on.

And while each does spring from its own time and circumstance, one thing they tend to share is a built-in power imbalance. One that too frequently leaves the belated fight for recognition and clean-up largely to individuals and small communities – who find themselves facing determined businesses, reluctant governments and fellow citizens worried that doing the right thing by worker safety and the environment will come at the expense of their jobs.

The fear of job losses is no surprise. It’s the primary and most effective argument made by those in Government and industry who oppose any increases in protections that might impact the bottom line. It was there again just last week as debate continued in Parliament on two legislative initiatives aimed at speeding the way for fresh mineral and energy exploitation projects – projects just like the mine at Pike River.

“This is part of the Government Business Growth Agenda to grow the economy,” National’s Sam Lotu-Iiga told the House on 21 March. “It is something that this country, our fellow countrymen and women, are in agreement with and support.” Lotu-Iiga was speaking in support of the new Energy Minister Simon Bridges and the Crown Minerals (Permitting and Crown Land) Bill he inherited from his predecessor Gerry Brownlee, which was up for its second reading. That bill is designed to promote minerals and energy exploration and extraction by, among other things, giving the Energy and Resources Minister a bigger hand in mining decisions at the expense of the Conservation Minister, based on an expanded “economic benefit” test. (In the wake of the Pike River report, the legislation was amended to include some tougher language on health and safety issues.)

The second “Growth Agenda” initiative currently under discussion is the Government’s long-awaited reform of the Resource Management Act, which will fast-track some resource decisions, and give ministers more power to weigh in on projects they consider economically important. That legislation is now before a select committee where, also on 21 March, the Law Society weighed in with concerns that the proposed changes could harm the quality of local decision-making and breach “the rules of natural justice”.

As this political debate over growth, jobs, “red tape” and regulation continue in Wellington, the view from the regions is often quite different. At any one time in most parts of the country outside the main centres, numerous front-line struggles over just these kinds of issues are being waged. They are complicated and impassioned, not conducive to the sound-bite, take forever and usually have little impact on city dwellers.

In the Bay of Plenty region alone, there are concerns about deaths and injuries in forests and on the Tauranga wharves; there’s the on-going Rena clean-up and a looming battle over disposal of the wreck (a full RMA process is promised even as the RMA itself is on the chopping block); and, despite that maritime disaster, the Port of Tauranga has just won over its objectors and been given the green light to dredge and expand the port and its narrow entranceway to accommodate super-sized container vessels more than 100 metres longer than the 236 metre Rena; out on East Cape, meanwhile, members of Te Whānau ā Apanui and others recently took to the ocean in boats to oppose off-shore exploration plans by the Brazilian oil company Petrobras (shelved for now); while last year, the region came off pretty badly in the Environment Ministry’s survey of freshwater beaches with around 40 per cent of its 44 monitored freshwater recreation spots being rated unsuitable for swimming; on the good news front, progress has been made toward cleaning up Lake Rotorua; but, just next door to the Bay of Plenty, several groups of Waihi residents are in the midst of their own RMA fight over plans to mine underneath the eastern side of town, while those farther up the Coromandel Peninsula watch as mining permits continue to be granted, including on conservation land.

Then there’s Joe Harawira (Ngāti Awa, Ngai te Rangi), the face of one of the biggest health and environmental struggles the Bay of Plenty – if not New Zealand – has seen. One that is both inspiring in pointing to a community success story, and sobering in how long the struggle has lasted and the toll it continues to take on those involved. It’s a case that says a lot about the yawning gap between legislative and political rhetoric promising health and environmental protections, and the reality on the ground, and it highlights the sometimes insurmountable obstacles community-level advocates face – whatever the regulations say.

It took Harawira and his group Sawmill Workers Against Poisons (SWAP) more than two decades to win recognition of their claim that the many years spent working with toxic chemicals (particularly Pentachlorophenol, or PCP) were the cause of their myriad and debilitating health problems, and that the mill waste that was dumped in sites around their hometown of Whakatane (often as landfill at marae) posed a threat to the health of the community.

Harawira first realised all was not well in 1982. He was a fit guy, a rugby fanatic who spent half his life in gyms. He even used to run to work at the mill and run home again in his big hobnail boots. “I was running to work one morning and I just collapsed on the road, I just dropped on the road for no reason at all and then I went to haul myself up with a whole lot of difficulty and what I didn’t realise was my hip had jumped out for some reason,” Harawira says. “Then I knew I was in trouble, so I turned around to hobble back home and the blimmin thing come into place again.”

Harawira marks that incident as the beginning of his journey. The twists and turns and obstacles that followed are quite simply too numerous to count, and there are surely more ahead. (One excellent telling of the story is the 2011 award-winning documentary, The Green Chain [or extract here]; another can be found in a research paper by Dannielle Moewai Jaram.)

When he hung up his boots in 1992, Harawira had been working for 29 years in the mills where, from the 1950s to 80s, PCP was used as an anti-sap stain fungicide timber treatment. It has nearly killed him twice, he says, and left him with an array of health problems. “Half my body is shot now. My pancreas is shot, my kidneys are shot, I have one dead arm, everybody thinks I’ve had a stroke. And all my joints, my whole body up to here, up to my neck is shot.” He’s also been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. But Harawira, who is 67, considers himself fortunate. “Last year was the highest of our mortality stats per year,” he says of his fellow sufferers. “We lost 27 people last year. When I first started on this little journey here over 30 years ago, we were averaging about 1 or 2 a year. At the turn of the century, the year 2000, it climbed to 12 to 18, and just last year 27.”

Harawira says here he’s counting only those deaths linked to PCP exposure. And while the extent to which the current death rate is higher than average remains the subject of on-going research, a 2005 study did show elevated mortality among exposed sawmill workers. That study, carried out by Massey University and released in 2008, looked at around 4,000 people who worked in the industry from 1970 to 1990 and found higher death rates among exposed workers from respiratory disease than the general population. The researchers also compared mortality within the industry, between sawmill workers exposed to PCP and those who were not, and found a 40 percent higher risk of death from cancer, and a nearly 300 percent higher risk of death from respiratory disease.

Why did it take so long for a problem so severe to be recognised? Harawira believes it was in large part because of who was affected: a blue-collar workforce comprising high numbers of Māori and Pasifika workers. “In the timber industry it was easy to get jobs at that time, and people like me with no educational background, blimmin hopeless at school, sort of stuff, managed to get jobs there,” he says. These were the workers who wound up facing officials, politicians and specialist academics. The reaction could be dismissive, or, as Harawira puts it: “Who are you people to know about this, that and the other?”

Harawira emphasises he and the other members of SWAP came at their campaign from a life experience perspective – not an academic or “desk-top” one. For him, it was also important to be recognised as tangata whenua, as someone who was of and knew the land. When confronted with experts and politicians who wanted hard scientific proof, that counted, he says, for “probably zero”. But of course he did know the land.
“I think my generation would be the last generation back home where we actually lived off the land, truly lived off the land. Where we grew our own stuff, milked our own cows and all that sort of thing. I guess to put it even more precisely really, I believe my generation was also the transitional period between the draft horses and the Massey Fergusons and the David Brown’s and all that – the tractors. Because when I was growing up my whole family, we used horses to plough up our fields and weed the acres and acres of gardens and maize.”

It took time, but Harawira’s approach did gain ground and is now paying dividends. Since 2008, when the government officially recognised the workers’ concerns, a health facilitation service has been established, and clean-up efforts are under way both of which combine Western science with Mātauranga Māori. “They’ve still got us jumping through hoops,” Harawira says of the authorities, “but we are progressing”. What the facilitation service offers is our own doctor, we’ve got our own coordinator, we’ve got our own administrator and we’ve got nurses that are attached to this whole set up as well. Our doctor has been tasked to substantiate the health issues – or the causes, if you like, of our health issues so he’s been with us now just over a year and I guess it’s fair to say now that what he’s collated over that first year is, there’s a definite trend there.”

And the effort has moved well beyond Whakatane. “My group, along with the attachments that the government has given to us, we look after the whole of the Bay of Plenty, South Waikato and we’re just moving into Taupo now. The Ministry of Health looks after the rest of the country, so this is a national thing – workers exposed to chemicals within the industry.” (Harawira says there were around 900 sawmills across New Zealand using PCPs, with potentially similar problems to those caused by operations at the Whakatane mill.)

Hearing him tell it, it almost seems as if the regulatory environment was irrelevant to the struggles of SWAP. “This was all hinged on building up trust, building up respect, building up relations with the appropriate personnel, if you like, hence my little statement that it was, for us, it was about bringing together the Mātauranga Māori element, Western science, medicine and people to determine the diagnosis of chemical sensitivity, whether it be for the health of the people or whether it be for the health of the environment. They needed to remain together. Basically they’ve actually recognised that, too. That’s the good part now. I don’t mind jumping through hoops as long as we’re progressing. Inch by inch, yard by yard. It’s better than taking two steps backward, to take one step forward.”

There was no blast that suddenly took the health of sawmill workers like Joe Harawira and their families. They’ve suffered, and in some cases died, slowly and quietly, behind the scenes. There’s been no Royal Commission of Inquiry into what happened to them. And the same can also be said of so many other unnamed and unknown health and environmental problems, the ones that creep up on people, and are nigh on impossible for individuals or communities to document and prove.

Whatever regulatory regime emerges from the current Parliament – and the post-Pike River health and safety task force, whose report is due in April – the case of Joe Harawira and SWAP shows that it takes much more than rules on the books and promises on the floor of the House to keep workers and the environment safe from harm, or to fix them when the harm has already been done.