40 Years of Environmental Excellence

Over the past four decades, Hill Labs has been at the forefront of environmental testing in New Zealand. We initially provided basic water tests for farmers, but in 1986, following an enquiry about water analysis for mining projects, the Environmental division was established. The landscape of environmental testing shifted significantly with the enactment of the Resource Management Act in 1991, which precipitated a surge in demand for Hill Labs’ services.

As we celebrate our 40th anniversary, we reflect on the many moments that have shaped our journey. A particularly memorable milestone was our involvement in the response to one of New Zealand's worst environmental disasters.

The MV Rena Disaster

In the early hours of October 5, 2011, the cargo ship MV Rena ran aground on Ōtāiti (Astrolabe) Reef near Tauranga Harbour. Carrying 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 1,368 containers, the 47,000-tonne ship began spilling oil into the ocean, creating an environmental crisis that affected over 50 kilometres of coastline.

Maritime New Zealand quickly classified the situation as Tier 2, recognising its national significance. The National Oiled Wildlife Response Team (NOWRT), along with experts from Massey University’s Wildbase and the Department of Conservation, mobilised to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife. Amid this chaos, Hill Labs was called upon to provide urgent analytical services.

On October 8, just three days after the grounding, we received the first samples of seawater, sediment, and shellfish from Motiti Island. These were the first of thousands of samples that would come to our labs over the following months and years. Ara Heron, our Senior Client Services Manager, led the testing effort.

“Samples were sent to us very quickly. Within a few days, we had our first batch to test, concentrating on analysing the heavy fuel oil,” recalls Ara. “Most of our Environmental testing team was involved in some capacity.”

As oil reached the beaches of Mount Maunganui and Papamoa, more samples poured into Hill Labs. We tested seawater samples for Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH) to help determine when the beaches could be reopened. Our team also worked on characterising the antifouling agents used on the ship’s hull.

“The greatest fear was that the oil would enter the food chain,” says Ara. “Thousands of samples of fish and shellfish from in and around the wreck were sent to us. We tested for petroleum hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and Tributyltin to ensure safety, which was confirmed in early 2016.”

Despite efforts, the Rena grew increasingly unstable, and in January 2012, it split in two and eventually sank. The ongoing recovery operation aimed to mitigate the environmental impact, with Hill Labs continuing to test for heavy metals and Tributyltin from the ship’s hull.

Our involvement in helping the recovery from this catastrophe is just one chapter in a long history of groundbreaking projects. From the cleanup of contaminated sites like the Fruitgrowers Chemical Company Site in Mapua in 2005 to providing analytical services after the Christchurch earthquakes in 2012, we have consistently pushed the boundaries of environmental science.

As we celebrate 40 years of environmental excellence, Hill Labs remains committed to embracing innovation and working with our clients to safeguard the environment for future generations.

28 May 2024

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