Exclusive: Waka Kotahi kept chemical 'overuse' quiet

Source: 1News

1News can reveal the Government’s transport agency, Waka Kotahi, has been aware of “overuse" of chemicals on New Zealand’s highways for at least two years.

Weed spraying in progress sign

An internal project found their chemical use was “relatively high” in 2019 but the agency kept that news to themselves, and repeatedly refused to be interviewed in-person about their spraying programme. The work was only revealed by a formal Official Information Act request.

It comes after a 1News investigation in September, which discovered Waka Kotahi sprays more than 30,000 litres of the controversial weed killer glyphosate across the national highway network every year.

The chemical is classified as safe to use in New Zealand, but is the subject of international debate, and was named a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015.

It’s unlikely to affect passing motorists, but regulators, scientists and lawyers the world over have long argued over whether it has an impact on regular users - like spraying contractors - and on the environment.

Waka Kotahi says it follows the rules set by our regulators, which allow the chemical to be used widely across the country.

But internal emails obtained by 1News under the Official Information Act (OIA) show Waka Kotahi’s own officials have recommended “immediate action” to cut back.

A memo sent to roading bosses following our initial investigation reveals they identified six key ways to reduce agri-chemicals – including glyphosate – two years ago in 2019.

Waka Kotahi did not disclose that when contacted by 1News earlier this year, and repeatedly refused to be interviewed on camera.

They would not discuss the spraying programme in-person and chose to respond in writing instead. Emails obtained through the OIA now show why.

A notice sent to the executive leadership team at Waka Kotahi in September reveal the agency was concerned about the “framing” of our investigation, which revealed the full extent of their glyphosate spraying programme for the first time.

“The reporter repeatedly requested an interview with someone from Waka Kotahi but we have declined the requests,” the email reads.

“We determined that the story’s negative framing had already been determined.”

The agency sent a statement to 1News instead. But what it did not share, was that officials had been quietly investigating ways to reduce agri-chemical use for years.

An internal Waka Kotahi memo uncovered through the OIA reveals the agency knew its own herbicide use was “relatively high” and believed it was likely to increase.

It outlined six separate areas for “improvement” including changes for contractors, planting and new rules to limit spraying.

The project found spraying contractors needed more direction, and recommended improvements to “consistency and transparency”, saying “over-use of agrichemicals is driven by variable contract interpretation and application”.

Other ideas included “low-growing” plants around marker posts to reduce the need for weed-killer and changes to the equipment that contractors used to limit spraying.

It’s a move that’s been supported by Ian Shaw, a professor of toxicology at the University of Canterbury.

“That's what they're doing, that's good - I wish they'd just tell you that, and show us exactly how they're doing this,” he said.

“I feel very strongly that glyphosate is a very useful herbicide, and New Zealand and many other countries in the world simply couldn't do without it, but we don't need to use it willy-nilly.

“By pulling back and using less of it, we reduce two things; we reduce the impact on the environment, which is crucially important, and secondly we reduce human harm because of the people actually applying it.”

Experts say the situation is an example of a Government agency trying to control the narrative through “one-sided communication”.

James Hollings, the associate professor of journalism at Massey University, said it was important for public agencies to allow interviews.

“Communication managers are increasingly, I would argue, and I think journalists would agree with me, controlling the media messaging - and totally controlling the media messaging - by exactly the example we've seen here, by refusing interviews,” he said.

“If there is a good reason for using glyphosate then they should be prepared to debate it publicly, and stand up for it.”

Media commentator Gavin Ellis agreed, saying it was important to conduct interviews in-person to allow “interrogation” of public officials, as this would typically allow more information to be gathered for the public.

“It's not for agencies of the Government to determine when they will or will not speak to reporters simply on the basis of what they think the reporter might be going to do,” he said.

“These people seem to forget who employs them - they're not employed by some Ministry, they're employed by the people of New Zealand and we have a right as their employers, as their ultimate employers, to information that is in the public interest.”

In a response this week Waka Kotahi claimed it did respond fairly, saying it provided “detailed responses to previous questions in writing”, as well as “a significant amount of background information and correspondence”.

They added that while glyphosate is classified as safe here, they acknowledge it does have "environmental and health impacts" like "all chemical herbicides", and the agency is seeking to cut back where possible. It also stressed that it took measures to keep its contractors safe.

A spokesperson claimed trials on alternative options for spraying will begin this summer, with an implementation plan expected by mid-2022.

Their comments were made through a written statement – the agency declining to be interviewed, yet again.