Last week, residents from Whakatu were given an opportunity to express concerns about their community to the Hastings Council’s Maori Joint Committee, chaired by Des Ratima.
Their concerns, expressed with quiet frustration, related to the health, environmental and child safety impacts of the industrial operations — including tanning and woolscouring — adjoining their neighborhood.
They described odours, airbourne wool fibers fouling their laundry, dubious handling of dangerous chemicals, pollutant discharges into the fish and eel-empty Clive, evidence of abnormal respiratory illness … and the worry of more to come if these operations continue to expand.
As they spoke, it became apparent that this is a story they’ve told to other authorities in the region, from the Fire Service to the Regional Council to the Health Board.
The common response, at best, has been “not my job” or “we don’t have the authority” … if not plain disinterest.
And it’s true, the Hastings Council has no authority, for example, over what toxic chemicals can be used or stored by the companies involved, even though it would be Hastings residents and firefighters whose health would be threatened if one of these facilities went up in flames.
Nor does the Hastings Council have jurisdiction over discharges of pollutants from these facilities into the air or water, even though those most affected are residents of a Hastings community. That’s the Regional Council’s job.
Listening to all this, a few things occurred to me.
First, environmental issues can be sorted by class. The upper class has the luxury to worry about global warming, endangered species and population growth in China. The middle class gets worried when environmental or energy issues affect their pocketbook … like compliance costs or rising fuel prices. The poorest among us have other things to worry about … until their very health is threatened by dirty air or contaminated food or water.
Of course, the Whakatu variety of environmental issue would rarely arise in Havelock North or on Napier Hill.
Second, I’m struck by the dysfunctionality of how government — local and central — addresses these issues.
HDC authorises these businesses to operate in the first place, tells them where they can, and then appears to wash its hands of the matter. The Occupational Health & Safety folks regulate the chemicals, but apparently the word “regulate” is a joke. The Fire Service has a hand in the matter, what with life-threatening fumes when these places burn down; but doesn’t show interest in the daily health risks to nearby residents. HBRC grants and monitors the pollutant discharges. And of course the Health Board, despite its name, has no pro-active watchdog role with regard to these impacts; it waits for the warning phone call that rarely comes from the Regional Council.
The result of this mash-up is that everybody can duck responsibility … and has done so when approached by the residents of Whakatu.
And third, it’s clear that, despite all the conflicting jurisdictions and authorities (or lack thereof), it is the Hastings Council that the residents look to for protection. The local Council and its Mayor and Councillors are seen as the representatives, hopefully champions, of the people.
Nobody looks at the Regional Council or any of the other bureaucracies in that same way. Who are those people anyway?!
So the people and their complaint sit before the Hastings Council, courtesy of its Joint Maori Committee.
The Mayor and CEO promised to look into the matter, and described a possible jaw-boning process of engaging the companies involved to address the problems. It sounded too sloooow-motion.
We should all look to the Mayor and CEO for strong advocacy on behalf of the Whakatu community. Jurisdictions are irrelevant. Somebody needs to wade into the issues with some urgency, define options and solutions, bring relevant parties to the table, and knock a few heads.
Anybody can read the rule books and say “Not my job.” But political leadership is about energetically using all the formal and informal tools available to produce a solution for worried — and perhaps harmed — citizens. And not the least of those informal tools is moral suasion … the bully pulpit.
The Mayor made a “first-step” commitment to the representatives of Whakatu. But it will be easy for this matter to fall between the cracks once again, or to never gain traction. On this one, BayBuzz will do its best to keep the spotlight on and the urgency level high.