Controversy over 1080 erupted this month, with five protesters arrested for interfering with a poison drop. In Taupo, a fake bomb was discovered at a firm behind the drops. In the middle of the debate is Taupo mayor Rick Cooper, who believes a 1080 `gravy train’ is making a small group of people rich. Special investigation by Tony Wall.
RICK COOPER looks uncannily like the figure in the oil painting in his Taupo District Council office, right down to the open-neck blue shirt and grey blazer. The subject is not an ancestor or a former mayor, but TV mob boss Tony Soprano. The inspiration? “He shot the bastards, encased them in concrete. He is my mentor – `just get on with it’.”
He is joking, of course, but you suspect His Worship wouldn’t mind meting out some mob justice to those he believes are poisoning the environment with the aerial spread of 1080.
Although Cooper “hates” 1080 – “if I was prime minister I would ban it by lunchtime” – he has no problem with ground control, where the poison is laid by hand in bait stations, targeting possums only.
What enrages him is “indiscriminate aerial bombardment”, which he says is causing “carnage” in our forests, killing everything from insects and plants to birds, pigs, deer and domestic farm animals, as well as threatening waterways.
Cooper’s council has passed a resolution – six for and four against – to advocate for the abolition of aerial 1080 poisoning and to seek alternative possum eradication methods. The Westland District Council has passed a similar resolution and the mayor of Kaikoura has called for a 1080 ban, as a groundswell of opposition to the deadly poison, banned in most countries, builds.
The Department of Conservation, regional councils and the Animal Health Board use 1080 to control possums in order to protect forests and birdlife and to prevent the spread of bovine TB. In 2007, after a lengthy submissions process, the Environmental Risk Management Agency (Erma) found 1080 was safe and decided to allow its continued use, including aerial operations.
But that has not silenced opponents such as Cooper, who fired off emails to all the agencies involved, as well as Prime Minister John Key, in a desperate attempt to halt a 1080 drop over 26,000ha of the Kaingaroa State Forest east of Taupo this month.
The operation was unnecessary, Cooper says, as the terrain was easily accessible – “it’s flat country my grandmother could ride her bike around” – and could have been done by foot. He says the obsession with aerial operations is denying work to possum trappers and undermining the trade in meat and fur.
A 1080 “gravy train” keeps the aerial drops going, Cooper claims. There is too much money being made for them to be abolished, he says, conspiratorially. He talks of closed-door deals, conflicts of interest and a lack of transparency from the agencies involved. “I think it’s a bit like something died in the back paddock and hasn’t been buried.”
Cooper points to multimillion-dollar contracts awarded to a local firm, Epro Ltd, to spread 1080 from the air. Its director and co-owner, Roger Lorigan, used to work at Environment Waikato, which issues resource consents for 1080 work, in its pest management unit. A former colleague, Kevin Christie, also has his own firm, Ecofx based in Otorohanga, which has also won big contracts.
Their boss at Environment Waikato was John Simmons, now the biosecurity and natural heritage group manager at the council, in charge of pest management. In the late 90s, the council sold its possum control business to Lorigan and Christie, and Cooper claims they have been milking it ever since. However, his concerns were not shared by the auditor-general, who in a 2004 report found no evidence of any conflict of interest.
But Cooper remains suspicious. “It doesn’t matter where you go with this stuff, you keep finding the same people, the same names, and no one you can independently trust. My question is, what methodology did they use to sell those companies?”
Cooper has been challenging Environment Waikato chairman Peter Buckley on the issue. Buckley says he initially had concerns about how the companies were set up, but since becoming chairman has been satisfied that everything was above board. Lorigan says they were simply management buy-outs of pest destruction businesses, no different to those conducted by several other councils around the country. He says that 1080 contracts awarded to his firm are won fairly. “We just tender along with everyone else.”
Simmons says allegations of bias and closed-door deals were raised by a rival operator in 2004, and dismissed by the auditor-general. “It is disappointing that this has again surfaced unnecessarily.” He says Epro and Ecofx are experts in their field and, “I am sure the majority of ratepayers… have a high level of assurance in the professional manner in which the work is undertaken.”
A copy of the auditor-general’s report, provided to the Sunday Star-Times, shows that, while there was no evidence that Simmons had ever had any financial interest in Epro or Ecofx and there was nothing to suggest their relationship was inappropriate, there was another conflict, involving an “independent consultant” employed by the council to act as moderator and recorder in the 1080 contract process.
The person had a business relationship with both Epro and Ecofx, and while the council knew this, it had done nothing about it. Figures released to the Star-Times by Environment Waikato show it has paid around $2 million to Epro and Ecofx for aerial 1080 contracts over the past 10 years, but most of the contracts the firms won were with the Animal Health Board, which refuses to reveal payments for reasons of commercial sensitivity.
Epro and Ecofx recently applied for 10 and 20-year consents to continue aerial 1080 operations on a non-notified basis, although they later withdrew the applications and settled for year-long consents. (Their current 10-year consents are due to expire next month.)
“We kicked up such a stink they had to back out,” Cooper says. “That’s protecting your business isn’t it? Non-notified consents, 10 years for a poison. You can’t even put a bedroom on your house without a resource consent.”
Lorigan says Cooper’s allegations and inflammatory comments are inciting threats against his firm. Just a day after the Star-Times visited Epro this month, staff discovered a suspicious package – a 20-litre container with a clock and protruding wires – on machinery at its depot. Bomb disposal experts were called in and houses evacuated, but it was a hoax.
The incident came a day after two dogs died, apparently after eating 1080 pellets by the side of the Napier-Taupo highway. A friend of the owner later paraded the body of one of the dogs through the middle of Taupo in a wheelbarrow.
Lorigan says the bomb hoax proves anti-1080 protesters are “terrorists”.
“You just get sick of it, where’s it going to end? We’ve had threats and stuff like that, at the end of the day we’re just a contractor. That’s what drives me nuts, we’re just a business.
“Rick’s taking it very personal and that’s quite a shame. We’re a business that has employed 50 people, I find it very disappointing that a mayor can do that in his own town. Why isn’t he worried about how the town is going and promoting tourism?”
Cooper does not condone the bomb hoax, but says he understands the anger of whoever was behind it.
“There are a lot of disappointed people around this district that know the truth behind this madness. I’m glad I have no part in this diabolical 1080 nonsense because if I did, I fear I would have been tarred and feathered.”
COOPER IS an unlikely crusader against 1080. Your typical protester is a bearded, Swanndri-wearing bushwhacker, but Cooper made his fortune selling cars, owns half of the commercial real estate in Taupo – “I’m the biggest ratepayer in this town… $280,000 a quarter” – and races Mustangs in his spare time. He gives his $81,000 mayoral salary to charity.
But he is also a keen deer hunter and has “hated” 1080 most of his life. Soon after he won the mayoralty for the first time in 2007, Epro bungled a 1080 drop at Turangi.
“They were spraying 1080 all over the place down the bottom of the lake… they threw it across this place where these kids’ ponies were. I go down there… can you imagine the scene? You’ve got four horses thrashing and dying on the ground, one takes four days to die. I was going, `What is going on in this country? How in God’s name did a helicopter pilot biff this shit here, in this horse paddock?’ To this day those kids haven’t even had an apology.”
Epro, which failed to tell the owners to move the horses, was formally warned by Environment Waikato and a year later the regional council finally paid the owners $9100 compensation.
The incident convinced Cooper to campaign for the abolishment of aerial 1080 drops. He has spent so much time on the issue the past three years he has had to employ a “mayoral support officer”, Graham Sperry, who is chairman of the anti-1080 New Zealand Wildlands Biodiversity Management Society, to take up some of the 1080 workload.
Documentary maker Clyde Graf, whose film on 1080, Poisoning Paradise, has been nominated for awards in the UK, is a hunting companion of Cooper. He says for 1080 opponents, having the mayor in their corner has been invaluable.
“He’s a fairly staunch, brave sort of a guy,” Graf says. “He doesn’t get pushed around easily, he just stands up for what he believes in. His position as mayor, he’s not trying to defend , he’s not sucking up to bureaucracies and the big bullies, following government policy – because 1080 is locked into government policy.”
But others are not so impressed.
The Conservation Department says it is “disappointed” the council has not recognised the “key role” aerial 1080 plays in protecting vulnerable wildlife such as kiwi, while the Animal Health Board, which spent $53m on possum control the past financial year, claims inaccurate comments have been made about the aerial use of the poison. Board chief executive William McCook disputes Cooper’s claim the east Taupo drop zone was flat country that could have been covered by foot.
He says the area is extensively forested and poses some “serious health and safety risks” for ground control operators. Aerial control is the most cost-effective method, he says, and provides even coverage. McCook says 80% of the operations in the region are ground based, using traps and poison.
Ailsa Gathergood, a Taupo district councillor and farmer who voted against the resolution to advocate for the abolishment of aerial 1080, says farmers are generally in favour of it to protect their cattle from TB. Birdlife in bush areas she has visited has bounced back after aerial drops, she says. Gathergood says farmers are feeling resentment that they did not get to put their side of the story before the council passed its resolution.
Will it cost Cooper votes? “We’ll see what happens at the next local body elections [in October],” she says.
Cooper claims not to care. “It could go either way, but I am true to my beliefs and I don’t give a shit if it sees me out of here – I’ll just go fishing.”
AT EPRO’S base on Broadlands Rd, there is a framed notice on the wall from Environment Waikato, praising the work the firm has done to prevent the spread of bovine TB.
Lorigan says in the mid 90s, Taupo had 250 cattle herds on movement control because of TB – today there are none. “Isn’t that pretty damn good?”
He confirms 1080 contracts have been worth millions to his firm, but denies it has made him wealthy. “Do you know any millionaire possum hunters?” Costs include helicopters, poison, staff and vehicles, he says.
Lorigan says aerial 1080 drops are more cost effective than ground control – helicopters can cover 20,000ha in two days, but the average man only 20ha a day. He believes 1080 is safe. Cooper claims a hunting estate Lorigan owns near the southern end of Lake Taupo has never had 1080 dropped on it, but Lorigan says that is simply not true. “I’m a mad-keen hunter, and I don’t have a problem with it .”
Lorigan says incidents where pets and domestic farm animals have died after eating 1080 were “human error”, and he’s not talking his own.
“It’s not the poison’s fault. It’s like if a dog runs out on the road and gets run over, is it the car’s fault? It’s the owner, and that’s what the story is with most of the problems with 1080 – people don’t take responsibility for their own dogs or for their domestic animals, keeping them under control.”
That comment shows Lorigan’s lack of compassion, Cooper says, and points out that the horses Epro killed in 2007 were in their own paddock.
Cooper questions the need for 1080 at all. He says possums simply aren’t there any more. He recently went spotlighting and in four hours, saw just two possums. He and other 1080 opponents have tried to prise data from the AHB showing possum numbers before and after aerial operations.
The board refuses to supply the information, McCook telling the Star-Times: “The AHB does not provide data like that requested by Mr Cooper because it forms just one aspect of the decision to undertake a pest control operation.
“This data may be interpreted in isolation from other contributing and often complex technical information, which has the potential to give an incomplete and even misleading perspective of why an operation is to take place.”
This just adds fuel to Cooper’s fire. He suspects the numbers are being “cooked” to justify further drops and keep the gravy train running.
“A lot of focus has been on `these anti-1080 radicals’,” Cooper says. “The funny thing though, is the anti-1080 people have got none of this [money] at stake, and people who like 1080 have got lots of it at stake – the helicopter operator, the farmer, the Animal Health Board guys on a hundred and fifty f—— thousand a year, the guys with their three-piece suits driving around in their BMWs, and the Epros the Ecofxs.
“If we all put the flag up now and said, `we’ve got this under control, possum populations are right down, we don’t need you [aerial operators] any more’, what would happen? The gravy train would stop.”
For all his strong words, Cooper has been powerless to stop the drops – this month Epro completed the east Taupo drop, on behalf of the AHB. Environment Waikato and other regional councils issue resource consents for aerial drops, and each operation has to be approved by the medical officer of health for the district. Local councils can make submissions, but essentially are cut out of the decision-making loop.
Cooper says he will keep up his vocal campaign against the poison until those in power start listening.
“My job is to protect the environment and the inhabitants therein. How do we stop it? It’s a real good question. It’s a bit like starting on P – how do you get off the shit? The only way is people power – that’s all we’ve got.”
1080 – a controversial killer
Sodium monofluoroacetate, or 1080, has been used for about 50 years in New Zealand to control possums. It is a chemical reproduction of a naturally occurring, biodegradable toxin which exotic plants produce. It has accidentally killed dogs, deer, horses, cows, and birds after being dropped from the air.
The SPCA is against the poison because of the cruel way it kills – animals can take days to die. Proponents of its use say it breaks down in the environment – opponents say it is a threat to our waterways, not to mention our “clean, green” image. Possum numbers are estimated to be the same today – about 70 million – as decades ago.
Opponents of 1080 say this is evidence the poison programme hasn’t worked.
Supporters say without it, possum numbers would be even higher. New Zealand uses most of the world’s supplies of 1080, and it is banned in most other countries. It is imported from the US by Animal Control Products Ltd, a state-owned enterprise, which mixes the poison into cereal bait and sells it to contractors such as Epro.
The contractors are hired by the Conservation Department and regional councils, which want possums eradicated to protect birdlife and forests, and by the Animal Health Board, an incorporated society tasked with eradicating bovine tuberculosis, which could cost farmers billions if it gets out of control. For this reason, the powerful lobby group Federated Farmers supports the use of 1080, as does Forest and Bird. In 2007, the Environmental Risk Management Agency reviewed the use of 1080, taking submissions and eventually ruling the poison was safe and could continue to be used. Opponents say the review was a whitewash and relied on dodgy science. Some 1080 protesters have been labelled “terrorists”, after a 1080 contractor’s dog was deliberately fed 1080 on the West Coast in 2008, and just this month a fake bomb was left at Epro’s depot in Taupo.
Taupo man Chris Short epitomises the lengths 1080 opponents are prepared to go to make their point. In 1995, he hijacked a crop-spraying helicopter and forced the pilot to fly him into Tongariro National Park. He spent eight months in jail. Last year a terminally ill Short spent six days on Mt Tongariro protesting 1080. He vowed to die on the mountain but was eventually persuaded to come down.
Sunday Star Times