As the global environmental activist group Greenpeace prepares to square off against Japanese whale hunters in the South Pacific, someone in a nearby area of the Pacific has done a fine job of endangering the health of these gentle and quite possibly sentient denizens of the deep–and locals are justifiably outraged. According to a 5 November broadcast from a New Zealand television network, a ship carrying 500 metric tons of asbestos was scuttled in the waters of a whale sanctuary, located among the Cook Islands about 1,100 miles northeast of Wellington and 500 miles southeast of American Samoa. According to local residents, the Miss Mataroa was sunk off the coast of Rarotonga Island after the government of New Zealand refused to provide assistance in disposal of the asbestos waste. The main concern now is that the current action has set a precedent for others looking for a cheap way to get rid of asbestos waste. The asbestos materials had been removed from local government and school buildings and had been stored on board the Miss Mataroa for two years. Since then, the ship had begun leaking and was in danger of sinking.
Cook Islands Government officials said that after Auckland and Sydney refused to provide assistance, they needed to take action. Foreign minister Winston Peters was quick to point out that the New Zealand government was not at fault, saying, “Its [sic] a domestic decision that has been made and I think that’s regrettable.” Meanwhile, a representative of the National Environmental Service assured the public that the asbestos materials that were sunk are non-friable, and will behave like stone. Unfortunately, the people living on the islands seem to be woefully under-informed about asbestos hazards; photographs of workers show that no protective gear was worn, and asbestos waste falling from trucks was left lying on the ground. Another government official acknowledged that many Cook Islanders have never even seen asbestos and would not recognize it if they did. Now, everyone is wondering what effect the asbestos will have on the undersea environment and its life forms. Despite the concern, however, plans are moving forward to sink another asbestos-laden ship.