Editorial: Sea lettuce disaster is just too close for comfort

By Annemarie Quill

New year holidays mean old disaster movies on television. I am not sure why - maybe to serve as a reminder that, whatever hiccups you have had in the past year, at least you haven't faced certain death by an approaching asteroid or deadly twister.

With a glut of these flicks over the past weeks, I noticed a common theme: a geek or ordinary bloke tries to make the authorities listen about imminent danger.

Whether it's a hapless Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day trying to convince the president about alien spaceships poised to attack, a teenage Elijah Wood in Deep Impact discovering a comet is on a collision course with Earth, or Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow trying to convince global leaders that the ice age is coming.

The authorities do not listen, until it's almost too late, leaving the viewers with an impending sense of disaster.

It is the same feeling I had reading Julia Proverbs' sea lettuce story on page A14.

It reads like the plot of a disaster movie.

Our councils play the role of the unbelieving officials and Hylton Rhodes, head of a local action group, plays our grassroots hero trying to save the planet, or in this case Tauranga.

The scene: hundreds of tonnes of smelly green algae is washing up on our shores. It is so bad that two local boys vomited from the toxic fumes.

It interferes with sports events, its green tentacles wrapping themselves around surfboards.

The characters: Mr Rhodes, Tauranga HarbourWatch chairman, has lived in his house overlooking the estuary for 40 years. He has never seen it so bad.

He believes it is to do with discharges from the Ballance Agri-Nutrients fertiliser works in the Mount.

Our hero is backed by the boffins. Dr Michael Morris, a marine sciences expert, agrees that the sea lettuce is coming from land-based activities, including sewage overflows, run-off from farmland and urban development.

Dr Morris says the only opponent of this view is the council, which says it is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Ballance boss Larry Bilodeau says it is unfair to blame his firm for the green bloom, as it is within allowed limits regarding discharge.

While the city is thus divided over the cause of this green peril, there doesn't seem to be much hope of solving the issue for, as Dr Morris points out, "we need to be honest about the source first".

I was also amazed to read that clean-up of the green slime depends only on the amount of complaints received. Like me, I am sure many residents who get a whiff of the pongy invader do not know it is necessary to phone the council.

You know there is something seriously wrong when Dean Kelliher, the contractor who does the clean-up and presumably makes money from doing so, himself says sea lettuce is a symptom of a bigger problem that needs to be addressed.

Meanwhile, the council and Envirohub Bay of Plenty chairwoman Mary Dillon seem to underplay the issues, in my view.

Ms Dillon's call for a citizens' response, to use natural products on the garden, seems as hopeless as advising to put on a jumper if the ice age is coming.

Others argue that the green gunge makes good fertiliser. So does horse manure but you wouldn't want hundreds of tonnes of that in your front yard either.

The outcome of all this hangs perilously in council hands. I urge every city resident to join with the local action group in forcing not just a regular clean-up, but a thoroughly objective scientific investigation.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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