Last week, a remarkable debate occurred in the HB Regional Council on the issue of dealing (or not) with the region’s air quality. Specifically, curbing the level of so-called “PM10” pollution … the fine particles in smoky air, mostly caused by wood burning in this region, that penetrate the lungs deeply and cause or aggravate all sorts of respiratory and cardiovascular disease … and death.

BayBuzz has provided background on this issue before, including the HBRC’s very informative briefing paper … click here.

Last Thursday, the HBRC’s Environment Committee was considering a well-constructed and comprehensive package of initiatives prepared by the staff to mitigate this especially dangerous type of pollution. The package includes:

  • tougher restrictions on industrial emissions (to which the staff reported key business stakeholders were amenable);
  • requirements for individual residents who burn wood in their homes (in HB, this accounts for 87% of the PM10 pollution) to transition to either up-graded wood burners or alternative heating systems by 2013 (or possibly at the point of sale of a home);
  • a subsidy program — to be implemented in the broader context of providing safely-heated, well-insulated, healthy homes (as many as 37,000 pre-1978 homes might be un-insulated) — to assist homeowners in financing the transition;
  • all supported by a communications program designed to educate people about the health risks involved and the alternative solutions available — not the least of which is burning dry wood in the first place.

Hats off to the staff for crafting a thoughtful and balanced set of recommendations. Here is their recommendation memo.

Now, keep in mind that the Councillors were simply asked to put this package before the public for consultation … no hard and fast rules were actually being adopted last week.

Here’s how they behaved.

Councillors were first informed by Councillor Scott that Mayors Yule and Arnott had approached HBRC Chairman McIntyre (who was not present at this debate) proposing a united front to strenuously lobby the National Government for a relaxation of the standard. The two mayors are clearly on the record opposing cleaning up the PM10 … one has essentially urged civil disobedience. They have been pandering to voters since this issue first arose.

Chairman McIntyre’s response was not revealed. CEO Andrew Newman noted that regional councils around NZ had different views on the matter. Indeed, some Councils (apparently the wild and crazy ones) have already implemented the kind of measures Hawke’s Bay is only now considering. Oddly, no one during this debate at HBRC has inquired into why this Council is coming at the issue so late! The 2013 deadline has been on the calendar since 2004.

[Parenthetically, as a Hastings resident, the last thing I want to see Mayor Yule do on the salary I help pay him is advocate against protecting my health!]

In any event, the tone was set. Most Councillors discussed the issue in a largely wishful context, hoping that the new Government would come to the rescue and save HBRC from actually having to protect our health with too rigorous a regime. But, by the end of the debate, at least those Councillors (von Dadelszen, Scott, McGregor, Dick and Rose, with Kirton and McIntyre absent) went along with putting the package before the public for consultation … a process that will extend into March 2009 to give full opportunity for the community to be heard. And more time, possibly, for a National Government to intervene.

But even this first step was too much for two Councillors — Tim Gilbertson and Liz Remmerswaal. Both are still in denial that a health problem even exists. Tim hallucinates about centuries of apparently healthy Maori communing around their campfires; while Liz yearns to keep roasting marshmallows around the family’s open hearth.

Apparently they are privy to health research that indicates the lungs of Kiwis — make that Hawke’s Bay Kiwis in particular — are somehow impervious to PM10 damage! Seeing no danger, they cast their two votes against the recommendation that Council adopt the draft recommendations as a proposed plan change for public notification. Amazing!

So what about the National Government … will they come to the “rescue?” Here’s what Chris Tremain and Craig Foss said on the matter during the campaign in their joint response to BayBuzz:

“The current policy of replacing all wood burners is ridiculously over bureaucratic … (we) do believe that Hawke’s Bay should have to meet national air quality standards, but we don’t need to ban all burners to reach the air quality standards required for just 9 days of the year [ED note: during just one-third of the past winter, Napier had 6 violations; Hastings had 27]. The cost is enormous and would have a huge impact on the lower socio-economic citizens of the Bay. (We) believe that a local solution to the problem can be found. This could entail a subsidy to encourage a transfer of homes to either cleaner burning wood burners or to heat pumps. This could be done voluntarily and would reach the necessary air quality standards over time and without the ridiculous position of banning all wood fires. (We) favour a local, community driven, and innovative solution to reach this national standard.”

The Backing the Bay boys, as I hear them — and I plan to clarify! — essentially accept there’s a health problem, and recognise that a transition to cleaner solutions is needed, with appropriate subsidies to ease the financial hardship. They say “voluntarily” versus mandatory, which implies there would be no compliance deadline. So homeowners who respond “get stuffed” (like Barbara, Lawrence, Tim and Liz) would be free to continue to emit PM10 to the health detriment of their neighbors … the voluntary compliers.

BayBuzz will be curious to learn how Tremain and Foss respond to the HBRC’s proposals, and to the entreaties from Yule and Arnott. Sure, there are practical implementation issues, timing considerations and precise costs to be sussed. But that’s where attention belongs, not in fueling public hysteria or denying the problem.

Personally, I’m tired of seeing our local elected officials profess great angst over sustainability, peak oil and global warming, but then run like rabbits when concrete steps to mitigate in-your-face environmental hazards are required that might involve near-term voter sacrifice (for long-term benefit). Polluted air is just one such issue on our doorstep now; polluted water and toxic sites are two more awaiting their turn.

Hopefully, Hawke’s Bay politicians will learn that making our “clean green” image into a reality is a necessity, not a luxury … and requires strong leaders, not rabbits.

Tom

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2 Comments

  1. As a driver of overseas visitors to Hawkes Bay, the comments that

    I most hear are how beautifull the enviroment is in the Bay.

    We need to keep it that way by investing in to cleaner air, cleaner water quality systems, etc etc

    Tourism is becoming one of our biggest earners, and they are coming to experience our so called clean and green.

    which will be black and tack if we dont icontinue to nvest in to maintaining our natural resources in the Bay, which bring in the tourism dollars.

    Its not rocket science, its just plain old commonsense, instead of stting on the proverbial fence getting spinters up the ole you know what.

  2. Tom- 'roasting marshmellows' was never mentioned at last week's debate-

    I care about real health benefits to the people of Hawke's Bay – the greatest good for the greatest number.

    To my mind there are still some fundamental questions unanswered. I cannot support a huge $40million spend converting fires until I am convinced it is worthwhile.

    International research shows that insulation reduces energy costs and makes homes warmer and drier, which improves the householder's health as well as reducing mould, mildewand cold and damp living conditions. People report frequency of asthma attacks occurring after their homes are insulated.

    In last week's debate, I ammended a staff recommendation to include insulation as one of the measures we promote.

    When will we see a direct health impact report on healthy homes?

    2. Where are the figures looking at how much PM 10 is emitted from wet wood as opposed to dry wood?

    3. What is the cost to the country of converting from fires to so called 'clean heat', as in heat pumps? We are already short of electricity as we keep using more. How will people on low incomes- 30% in HB have household incomes under $30,00- afford increased electricity bills?

    Believe me, I take this very seriously.

    Please contact me if you would like more information or discussion.

    Sincerely, Liz Remmerswaal, HB regional councillor, Hastings electorate.

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