COOK ISLANDS ASBESTOS DUMPING AT SEA POSTPONED

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By Helen Greig

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Oct. 31) – The burial of vessel Miss Mataroa at sea in the Cook Islands was postponed yesterday for two reasons beyond anyone's control.

A strong wind warning was issued and the police patrol boat Te Kukupa was called away to a medical evacuation.

Harbormaster John Fallon had been preparing to sail the ship out of the Avatiu harbor one final time at around midday before news of Te Kukupa's trip to Palmerston.

Fallon said without an escort boat and a possible run in with bad weather at sea, the sinking of Miss Mataroa was called off.

Environmental protesters had planned to be at the harbor to show their objection to the ship being sunk at sea loaded with asbestos waste.

The Taporoporo'anga Ipukarea Society has been making enquiries in New Zealand about the possibility of an intervention. Just 24 hours before the ship was due to be disposed of, their president, Ian Karika, said the time constraint meant they were limited in what they could do.

Fallon says it will now be a waiting game until Te Kukupa returns from the north to determine when they can get the ship out of the harbor.

The plan to sink the ship included the patrol boat and tugboat accompanying her on her last voyage seven nautical miles out from Cook Islands’ capital of Rarotonga.

Fallon will be on board the ship along with about half a dozen people who will disembark before she goes under.

The Cook Islands Investment Corporation that has undertaken the disposal of asbestos exercise has given an assurance that a full explanation of the disposal method and its approval will be provided this week.

A related Cook Islands News story reported yesterday that Cook Islands Investment Corporation's legal manager Lloyd Miles said the corporation consulted local government agencies, the secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP), marine resources counterparts in Australia and New Zealand, as well as health and environment services in New Zealand on the disposal at sea proposal.

"With the research we have done and the advice that we have, we do not believe that the asbestos in this form will cause damage or be unsafe to the marine environment," he said. "None of the agencies objected to the proposal. Generally the advice was that the proposed method of disposal would not cause harm to the marine environment and the asbestos in that form was not considered a marine hazard."

He said there is possibly as much as 800 tons of asbestos in the country that still needs to be disposed of in some way.

Harbormaster John Fallon says there could be up to 400 tons of asbestos on board.

Fallon confirmed that the ship's cargo hold also contains some scrap metal, one old truck body and a couple of old forklift bodies.

Meanwhile, Environmentalists are saying the disposal of asbestos at sea should not be considered by government again without better consultation and assessment first.

Taporoporo'anga Ipukarea Society president Ian Karika said their only hope yesterday rested on a last minute intervention from New Zealand.

He hoped the New Zealand government might be able to provide a better solution to the asbestos disposal given that there were concerns about dumping it at sea.

Taporoporo'anga Ipukarea Society executive member Jolene Bosanquet says her concern is that the Cook Islands waters will become a dumping ground for unwanted waste locally and from other countries.

The fact that the Cook Islands waters are a whale sanctuary is another issue with headlines like 'whale sanctuary becomes a dumping ground' a future possibility, says Bosanquet.

Cook Islands Whale Research director Nan Hauser says she hopes that it is not the beginning of a practice that the Cooks will adopt.

Recycle Cook Islands spokesperson John Wichman says from their point of view, the government had no alternative than to consider the disposal at sea.

He says the option of taking the material back to New Zealand had been looked into as well as burying the asbestos here. Wichman says political lobbying is needed to get New Zealand to accept the asbestos.

He says government's decision to bury the asbestos at sea should have been more transparent.

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