One of Taranaki's boldest environmental battlers is an elegant, softly spoken woman of 80. Don't be fooled by Zona Wagstaff's gentle demeanour and fine-boned frame - she is as determined as a pitbull latched on to a lamb.

Place an environmental issue near the New Plymouth woman and she will study the background, plan a strategy, strike with precision and fight to the end. With the National Council of Women (NCW) behind her, Zona has fought and won campaigns that have changed the face of Taranaki and New Zealand.

"We have had successes, sometimes we don't succeed but we never give up if it's something vital … it's the mother in women isn't it? You never ever give up once you've got children - not ever." That's the way Zona tackles issues close to her heart.

Harrowing hat-trick

She's had three titanic clashes - two backed by the women's group, one faced alone. Each has left her triumphant, but battle-weary and scarred.

You can partly thank Zona and the women's council for keeping New Zealand nuclear free. They are also largely responsible for New Plymouth's land-based carousel sewage treatment plant, which leaves the coastal waters clean.

Flying solo, but armed with international knowledge gleaned through her NCW role, Zona helped get the production of 2.4.5-T banned in New Zealand. Her story begins in the 1960s, when she was a young mum with three children.

While her friends were happy keeping house and being mothers, Zona wanted to make the world a better place for her kids. That's when she heard about the National Council of Women and its aims to promote the spiritual, moral, civil and social welfare of the community.

NCW fills gap

"I thought, 'That's what I've been looking for, for the last 10 years', so I said, 'Yes, I'd like to try that'," she says. So, in 1965, she became a delegate on behalf of the Taranaki Archdeaconry of the Anglican Church. "And nearly 40 years later I can't leave it alone, I really can't" says Zona, now an NCW life member.

The first big crusade began in the 1970s, when the council of women discovered that the Minister of Electricity was investigating sites around the country with a view to developing nuclear power stations. The women rallied their resources, with branches throughout the country forming standing committees to collect information on nuclear energy. "There's something about the women that belong to NCW, we are apt to suspect things. I don't know why, but you sort of get a sense that 'This sounds dangerous' and immediately start asking questions."

Next, the branches began firing off anti-nuke remits to national council headquarters, and a submission was prepared to lobby the government. Zona says the women's group has clout. "It's been accepted as the body for women by government" she says, explaining how the NCW is the umbrella group for 46 national women's organisations.

Anti-nuke submission

In 1975, Zona made a submission to the Bill Rowling-led Labour Government on behalf of the NCW. "We strongly urge that no further investigation be proceeded with, and that all other forms of power generation, including the utilisation of solar energy, be the only ones to be considered in terms of cost and suitability for the country."

A further submission was made in 1976 to Robert Muldoon's National Government. This time the women's council furthered its opposition to nuclear power because “reputable scientists appear to hold differing opinions as to the present safety of nuclear energy”. Concern was also expressed at the danger of storing nuclear waste.

While Muldoon's 1975-1984 Government pushed the Think Big campaign to build massive energy projects, nuclear power was not part of this. The issue came to a head in 1985, when the French Government began testing nuclear bombs at Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific. A flotilla of protest boats gathered in Auckland Harbour ready to sail into the blast zone. Among them was the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior.

Near midnight on July 10, 1985, the ship was bombed, killing Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira. Eventually, French Government agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur were arrested for the attack.

Evasive French

The following year, Zona was one of 13 New Zealand delegates to attend an International Council of Women's conference in London. Women from 70 countries were represented at the gathering, where Zona was assigned to the environment portfolio and asked to attend standing committees on education, plus international relations and peace. "And so, when I was trying to fit in all these meetings, sometimes they overlapped and I was rushing around in our hotel."

At the international relations and peace meeting there were many delegates from the South Pacific, who were hot on the subject of France's nuclear testing. "We decided that our best approach would be to meet with the French women and try and get to the people of France through them."

With two days left of the conference, a meeting was arranged. "We went to the room where they said they would meet us and they didn't turn up" Zona says. "We waited and we waited and they didn't turn up. We were very disappointed."

Another meeting was teed up, but again the French women failed to show. "We heard later that their government would not allow them to discuss the matter." Zona makes it clear that the New Zealand Government has absolutely no control over what the National Council of Women says or does.

Nuclear rain is coming down...

After the conference was over, Zona and husband Tony stayed on in London for a few days. That's when the nuclear issue became even more poignant. Zona remembers standing at her hotel window on 26 April 1986 listening to the first news reports of an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Russia. "The announcer went on to assure the people of Britain that there was no cause for alarm," she says. "At the end of that news bulletin there was a casual mention that weather forecasts showed Scotland and England would in no way be affected by this accident - except, perhaps if it rained. As I gazed out at those grey London skies, it started to rain!"

Zona returned from that trip more determined than ever to protect New Zealand's environment. She also came home armed with information about the agricultural chemical, 2.4.5-T, which was being manufactured in New Plymouth by Ivon Watkins-Dow Ltd.

Fight against 2.4.5-T

At the international conference, Zona learned from other delegates that the chemical was already banned in many countries, including Canada and the nations of Scandinavia. "When I mentioned 2.4.5-T, they [the delegates] looked askance because they could not believe clean, green New Zealand was still manufacturing it. Even America wasn't. When I got home, I felt convinced we had to face up to another environmental battle."

Zona took her concerns to the National Council of Women in New Plymouth. "But not all our delegates wished to become involved." So Zona made her own written and oral submissions to an environmental hearing, telling when and where around the world the chemical was already prohibited. "Big firms don't cease manufacture of something unless it is dangerous."

A by-product of 2.4.5-T is dioxin, a highly poisonous substance that was the subject of major controversy in the late 1990s and early 21st Century. This campaign was headed by Andrew Gibbs, who called for investigations of soil and people around Dow Agrosciences (formerly Ivon Watkins-Dow and then DowElanco NZ Ltd).

Battles take toll

This time round Zona didn't join the fight. "I was just too exhausted" she says. Being the mouse that roared has gradually worn her down. Even now, when she recalls her biggest battle of all, Zona looks weary.

It began in 1979 when the then New Plymouth City Council was planning to upgrade its sewage disposal scheme by putting in a long outfall pipe. This would have pumped raw waste into the sea a long way from shore. Zona and the New Plymouth branch of the NCW objected to the proposal. "We decided unanimously at that meeting that it was unacceptable and that we should oppose the granting of the water rights."

Women challenge experts

A sub-committee of about seven was formed to gather information. "We started off by obtaining all the reports of the consulting engineer of the city council. It was quite an eye-opener to me that you could walk in and you could come out with huge cardboard boxes full of data; dozens of them."

The council had been considering updating its sewage disposal plan since before 1964, so the women had 15 years of material to sift through. "We just started in on a study of this fascinating subject of sewage disposal. And it became more and more fascinating because it was more and more frightening." It took the women weeks to plough through the reports. They also found people willing to talk about the pollution at East End Beach, where sewage was flushed into the sea.

With the help of Vicki Dungan, a young civil engineer, the committee put together a submission to object to water rights being granted. When the big day came there were only a few objectors - local iwi, two young lawyers and the NCW.

Long haul against long outfall

"As president [of the New Plymouth branch] and chairperson of the sewerage committee I had to present the submission to the tribunal and, the worst part, face a cross examination by our city council solicitor. But we survived - and that was only the beginning" she says.

The women thought that all they had to do was object to the water rights. "But it just went on and on and it was a long battle, I think it was almost three years. And it was an extremely bitter battle because more than half of the councillors plus the mayor [D.V. Sutherland] were determinedly for the raw sewage discharge scheme and they were supported by their well-paid consulting engineers." Even the local medical officer of health backed the scheme, a stance that still baffles Zona.

Coping with verbal attacks

But the NCW remained strong in their beliefs, exasperating the experts and officials who constantly told the women they were wrong. "And my word, they didn't hesitate to tell us. I'd prefer not to remember some of the frightening things ... getting rung up by people and told that really I didn't know what I was talking about."

Reluctantly, agreeing not to sanitise history, Zona tells who phoned her. "I did have a ring from the mayor" she says quietly. Zona, with the NCW as her backbone, stood strong in the face of such vehement opposition. "At the time I felt hurt and almost frightened when people would speak to me directly because I was only the chairperson of the organisation. But you just knew, I mean, we had concrete evidence of what happens when you put sewage out to sea in an outfall - even if you make it a long, long outfall" she says. "We had people in the community who did tests that are specifically designed to show the currents and where they will come in and people had the evidence there before them on the beaches that this was correct.

Clean Sea Action Group

"I think you can't just fold up and give up because a few people are against you." The biggest problem was swaying the councillors, because more than half supported a long outfall. "But, fortunately, councils move very slowly and I think really we spearheaded the objections because we got into the newspaper and the people of new Plymouth just came out and joined with us."

In the end, the Clean Sea Action Group was formed and an alternative, land-based sewage scheme was investigated and put forward as an option. "By then we had the community behind us, but we still had to convince and change the opinion of at least one councillor if we were going to get anywhere" Zona says. Finally, after debates, meetings, newspaper coverage, protests and bitter arguments, the carousel land-based scheme was put to the vote.

Lean leads way to victory

By then, it was late 1981, and David Lean was the city's new mayor. People who attended the meeting that tense afternoon will remember his magnificent speech. The tall, blond-haired lifeguard held up a packet of cigarettes and said: "This is what it will cost per ratepayer, per week, to get a land-based sewage scheme for New Plymouth."

Whether it was his persuasive oratory, the Clean Sea Action Group's outspoken persistence, or the dogged women from the National Council of Women, the vote swung. At the final count, the carousel scheme had won by a single vote. As the audience erupted in cheers, tears and screams, one woman didn't move. "I have never forgotten that moment" Zona says. "I couldn't even cheer or clap; I just sat I'm afraid. The battle had been so hard, that the night of the councillors' vote was just exhausting really, emotionally exhausting."

Time to rejoice

But Zona did get her celebration when, in 1984, the land-based carousel scheme opened with fanfare at Bell Block. On the day, Mayor David Lean proved the cleanliness of the waste by-product by drinking a glass of fresh water straight from the plant.

Zona and the Clean Sea Action Group were also there. "We literally kicked up our heels. And I'll never forget that day because there on the platform were all the city councillors and some of them had been so rude."

Zona has also revelled in other environmental victories. In 1987, the David Lange-led Labour Government passed a law to make New Zealand nuclear-free. In 1990, DowElanco stopped making 2.4.5-T. Zona had a hand in both, sticking to her beliefs against the odds. "You don't ever give up, do you?"

Zona Wagstaff passed away on 15 January 2015 aged 91 years.


Clean Sea Action Group (1980). Two waste water disposal schemes for New Plymouth incorporating land based treatment plants: prepared for the city of New Plymouth. New Plymouth: The Group

Ivon Watkins-Dow (1978). The Status of 2,4,5-T Herbicide and the TCDD Dioxin, 1978. New Plymouth: Ivon Watkins-Dow.

Wagstaff, Z (1993). Report on the formation of the New Plymouth branch of National Council of Women in celebration of 100 years of women's suffrage in New Zealand: 1893-1993. New Plymouth: Z Wagstaff.

Wood, K. (1980). A study of the effect of the proposed New Plymouth ocean outfall. New Plymouth: K Wood

Related Information


Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: National Council of Women New Zealand, Taranaki branch


Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: Clean Sea Action Group


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