NZ rocket launches raise concerns about toxic environmental fallout

By Simon Plumb

The Ministry is looking to regulate how waste from Kiwi rocket launches will be disposed of upon returning to Earth.
The Ministry is looking to regulate how waste from Kiwi rocket launches will be disposed of upon returning to Earth.

Toxic contaminants and marine life being struck by objects from space are among concerns of how New Zealand will handle waste materials from its venture into rocket launches.

Government is paving the way for rockets and satellites to be fired into space from New Zealand. An agreement has already been struck with the United States, imposing rules for Outer Space and use of rocket equipment.

Government has also commissioned an "environmental risk assessment" to try and understand the impact of launch activity.

The Ministry for the Environment is calling for submissions on how material jettisoned from space rockets should be disposed of when falling back down to Earth.

A 37-page Ministry document says launches are "expected to result in the
deposit of some material on the seabed" and "this activity is not currently managed under the Exclusive Economic Zone (Environmental Effects) Act.

Among the assessed threats are toxic contaminants, smothering of animals living on the seabed and direct strikes from jettisoned material with seabirds or marine animals at or near sea surface.

Based on a risk assessment by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa), the Ministry says most marine risks can be considered low level, until around 1000 launches when some risks could be considered moderate - compared to major financial gains on offer.

"Overall, our view is that the risks to the environment and existing interests from jettisoned material falling into the EEZ are low and that the development of a space vehicle launch industry will have significant economic benefits for New Zealand, at a national and regional level," a Ministry spokesman said.

"Our view on the environmental impact on the EEZ is based on independent scientific research conducted by Niwa. But the consultation process we're running now will give us further feedback on the proposal (to make the deposit of jettisoned materials a permitted activity, subject to conditions) and we'll take a good look at that feedback before finalising any decisions."

Government is proposing to bypass the public notification provisions of the Environmental Effects Act by classifying the launches as a 'permitted activity'.

However, Greenpeace is concerned about what materials might be dumped into the ocean and also the process to be followed - with the Ministry document citing Government's proposal to classify the seabed deposits as a "permitted activity", an option which does not require marine consent.

"The proposed Electron rocket launch vehicle would release chemicals into the ocean, including kerosene. Lithium batteries will be jettisoned, possibly into NZ waters, and rocket fragments will land both in New Zealand's waters and in the high seas," Duncan Currie, Greenpeace's legal adviser said.

Nick Smith is looking to regulate how waste from rocket launches will be disposed of upon returning to Earth.
Nick Smith is looking to regulate how waste from rocket launches will be disposed of upon returning to Earth.

"Government is proposing to bypass the public notification provisions of the Environmental Effects Act by classifying the launches as a 'permitted activity'."

These are exactly the kinds of activities that should be the subject of a full impact assessment and public consent process."

For an activity to be classified as permitted, the Minister must be satisfied the activity meets requirements under the Environmental Effects Act. Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, referred questioning to the Ministry.

The proposed Electron rocket launch vehicle would release chemicals into the ocean, including kerosene.
Greenpeace

Rocket Lab's Electron is being developed to launch satellites into space at a much lower cost than other operators and is developing a launch site at Mahia, south of Gisborne. The Kiwi start-up company said it's focus is on minimising waste material.

"Rocket Lab was founded on the principle of continuously improving our immediate and global environment. The rocket contains no toxic, explosive, or radioactive materials and none are stored or used at the launch site," a Rocket Lab spokeswoman said.

"The Electron vehicle uses highly advanced lightweight, efficient materials to minimise the amount jettisoned. A report by Niwa has found the impact of jettisoned materials to be minor, or less than minor. The report found there were some environmental benefits resulting from launch activity including habitat creation for benthic organisms. We are continuing to consider ways of recovering and reusing the vehicle to further reduce any potential environmental impacts."

Rocket Lab says it can "accurately quantify where materials will land" and prior to launches will release maps detailing jettison zones, and is initially planning one launch a month, increasing to an average of around one a week.

Government intends to progress regulations before the end of the year.

- Herald on Sunday

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