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The Paper Mill: A New Documentary On Mataura’s Toxic Waste Nightmare

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On the edge of the Mataura River, a disused paper mill is filled with thousands of bags of toxic waste. Locals want to find out who’s responsible for it – and they want it gone before disaster strikes.

In February 2020, Mataura locals’ worst nightmare came true. The river that runs through the small Southland town flooded, its swollen waters coming perilously close to the old paper mill. The mill is filled with thousands of bags of ouvea premix, or dross – a waste by-product of the aluminium smelting process that releases poisonous ammonia gas on contact with water.

Nobody in Mataura asked for the paper mill to be filled with toxic waste. It just started arriving in the middle of the night, dropped off by the truckload. And now that it’s there, the town is locked in an ongoing struggle to determine exactly who’s responsible for getting rid of it, and when.

All roads in this story lead to Tiwai, the aluminium smelter 75km down the road, majority owned by global mining giant Rio Tinto. Tiwai originally sold the dross to a company called Taha Industries, who then processed it further into ouvea premix. But Taha Industries has gone into liquidation, creating a vacuum of accountability for the thousands of bags stored precariously close to the river.

Going back and forth between Tiwai and Rio Tinto, Environment Southland and the District Council, the fight for a solution has been slow and frustrating for those most affected. “It doesn’t give you any confidence in the people who are supposed to be looking after us,” says Laurel, one Mataura resident who’s been campaigning for years. “They just don’t seem to care.”

Directed by Nadia Maxwell, The Paper Mill is the first episode from the second season of Frame: a series of short, standalone documentaries.

Frame is produced by Wrestler for The Spinoff. Episodes are airing weekly.

Made with support from NZ On Air.

© Scoop Media

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