WELLINGTON, Dec. 17 (Xinhua) -- "Black gold and white gold" -- oil and milk -- these two resources have for decades driven the prosperous New Zealand region of Taranaki through the world's economic storms.
The rural landscape of the central North Island region is dotted with iconic dairy factories, now obsolete as exporters headed by global giant Fonterra build bigger, more modern plants to process milk into a raft of products sought by the growing international market.
Meanwhile, on the foreshore in the regional seat of New Plymouth, an ancient derrick is testament to the 19th century origins of the oil and gas industry that has made the city New Zealand's self-proclaimed oil capital.
For years they remained distinct, but the pressures to expand and intensify in both fields are seeing a cross-over that critics claim could be the source of future concerns for the country's food exporters.
The long-running controversy centers around land-farming, the practice of taking mud and sludge that come to the surface from the oil and gas industry's hydraulic fracturing -- fracking -- and distributing it over relatively infertile land to create new dairy pastures.
But regulators and the dairy industry, who are adamant the practice is safe, have failed to quell claims that dairy cows are grazing on land polluted with other waste, including chemicals used in fracking to release subterranean pockets of oil and gas.
FIT FOR PURPOSE?
The row bubbled to the surface again on Tuesday with the opposition Green Party citing reports from the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC), which regulates land-farming, to claim toxic chemicals on at least one land-farm exceeded the limits for dairy pasture.
Green Party energy spokesperson Gareth Hughes told Xinhua that while "we haven't seen any evidence of health and safety issues," concentrations of chemicals, particularly hydrocarbons, had exceeded guidelines.
The Canadian state of Alberta, on which TRC modeled its regulatory regime, would not have allowed the practice to occur, Hughes said in a phone interview.
TRC director of environment quality Gary Bedford said by phone that there were "no issues in terms of safety around land-farms and land-farms that have been returned to agricultural use."
He referred Xinhua to a statement on the council website that said the TRC considered "land-farming of drilling muds, solids and sludges" to be environmentally viable, while the disposal of the allegedly contaminated fracking "return fluids, produced water and other liquid wastes" was best suited to deepwell injection back into the ground.
He also cited a TRC-commissioned scientific report in September that asked if land-farms were "fit for purpose."
The report said the drilling muds did contain potential contaminants such as petrochemical residues, barium, heavy metals and salts.
However, testing and analysis showed the concentrations of heavy metals and soluble salts in the soils and pasture were " similar to normal New Zealand soils," while the form of barium present was as environmentally benign barite, and "there is no evidence of accumulation of petrochemical residues."
It concluded that Taranaki's land-farms were fit for purpose, adding that the "recontouring" of the tested sites with drilling wastes had helped increase the land value tenfold from 3,000 to 4, 000 NZ dollars (2,483 to 3,310 U.S. dollars) a hectare up to 30, 000 to 40,000 NZ dollars a hectare.
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