For more than four years, residents and workers in De Havilland Way, Mount Maunganui have complained organic dust from a nearby industrial building was making them sick.

Business owner Colin Alexander had a severe allergic reaction that laid him up for months. Resident Skye Sloan has to take a tablet every day to keep flu-like symptoms at bay. Dozens of other complaints have been recorded.

With health officials and an air quality investigation now backing their claims, they want authorities to do something about 101 Aerodrome Rd immediately.

Read more: Hangar residents and workers protest over industrial dust

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They argue the operations - bulk storage and handling of stock feeds including palm kernel expeller, a controversial palm oil industry byproduct - must stop until the fine, inhalable dust particles that regularly blew into the hangars can be prevented or contained.

The local authority responsible for pollution monitoring says it does not have the evidence for enforcement action under current regulations.

Meanwhile, the building's owner - ex-MP Bob Clarkson - says past monitoring found no breaches of dust rules, and while some tenants had been "a bit lax" in the past, he was satisfied the current group were taking the issue seriously.

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council, Toi Te Ora Public Health and WorkSafe each confirmed ongoing inquiries into the dust issues.

"Uncontrollable sneezing"

De Havilland Way, off Aerodrome Rd in Mount Maunganui, is home to a run of hangars that overlook Tauranga Airport's runway.

The hangars, on Tauranga City Council land zoned for the airport, are used by aviation-related businesses and groups. Most hangars have living quarters and lease agreements with the council that allow people to live in them.

About 40 to 50 metres back is the industrial-zoned 101 Aerodrome Rd - also on council land. It is a long building with seven separate stores and large shed doors that open towards the hangars.

Skye Sloan and partner Cameron Aldridge moved into a rented apartment above a De Havilland Way hangar in December 2015.

Their sinus issues started soon after.

"My symptoms started with uncontrollable sneezing," Sloan said.

"I was always thinking I was about to get a cold... but then I would go to work [off site] and feel better."

Despite never having had hay fever before, she said she must take prescribed tablets daily or the symptoms return. Aldridge, an asthmatic, had to start using an inhaler.

The fine brown dust was unavoidable, Sloan said.

"We keep the doors shut mostly, even in summer.

"You can taste it in the air. I worry that, if I can taste it, is it getting into my lungs?"

She said the couple had been looking for another place to live for more than a year but could not find anything affordable.

Their experience was not unique.

The Bay of Plenty Times has seen written complaints from both residents and workers of the hangars about dust-related health issues dating back as far as 2014.

Complaints gathered in December 2017 from 24 people included reported symptoms such as itchy eyes, scratchy throats, headaches and coughing up phlegm experienced only when or after being in De Havilland Way.

"We cannot shut them down"

Bay of Plenty Regional Council compliance manager Stephen Mellor said the council had taken 38 dust complaints relating to 101 Aerodrome Rd since 2014.

The council had spent more than 100 hours investigating and had twice commissioned independent air quality monitoring.

"At present, we do not have sufficient evidence to take enforcement action."

Mellor said to take action the council needed to know who caused the discharge, what the material was and that a standard was actually breached.

"If established industrial activities are operating lawfully within the provisions of the Regional Air Plan, then the regional council cannot shut them down," Mellor said.

The council had met with residents in recent weeks and developed an action plan to address their concerns.

It included better using better monitoring equipment that could pick up previously undetectable tiny inhalable dust particles.

"Robust monitoring information is crucial to pinpointing problems and gathering an evidence base for rule changes or prosecutions."

Staff would also talk to the bulk cargo businesses about mitigating their dust risk effectively and using hand-held air monitoring devices.

The council was reviewing its air discharge rules and had committed an extra $500,000 a year to improving air quality monitoring in the Mount Industrial area, Mellor said.

Councillor Stuart Crosby said he had been in meetings with residents and visited the site - smelling the dust and witnessing the dust plumes.

"There is a real problem here," he said. But a prosecution was not the ideal outcome.

"Both [hangar tenants and business operators] have a right to be there."

Colin Alexander says dust blowing into his business' hanger, on the left, from operations at 101 Aerodrome Rd, on the right, has made him seriously ill. Photo/John Borren
Colin Alexander says dust blowing into his business' hanger, on the left, from operations at 101 Aerodrome Rd, on the right, has made him seriously ill. Photo/John Borren

"My whole life changed"

For Solo Wings owner Colin Alexander, more talk and monitoring was not a good enough response after more than five years - and a serious health scare.

"I think the regional council is running out of excuses."

Alexander said he purchased his hangar in 2010 and first noted the dust in 2013. He attended meetings with authorities about the issue in 2014.

In the following years, he believed the dust producers tried to improve practices - with limited success - and he mostly tried to live with the dust.

In November and December last year, however, there came a "perfect storm" of weather and wind variables that sent more dust into the hangar than ever before.

Alexander suffered a serious allergic reaction.

"My whole life changed. I was hardly able to work. I wasn't able to fly."

He was diagnosed with allergic bronchitis, which his doctor suspected was a reaction to exposure to palm kernel dust.

In March his eyesight started deteriorating rapidly. Within two months he was down to less than 50 per cent vision.

Months of medication and diligent rehabilitation improved his lung function. Surgery partially fixed his sight.

"It will never be what it was."

He has spearheaded a campaign for change; collating evidence, rallying neighbours and trying to spur authorities into action.

"There's certainly no doubt that these are airborne allergens, and you can't just send up allergens into the air and not control where they are going when it results in other people's illness."

The dust was a risk to his business as well as his health, Alexander said.

"I have liability for my team. My staff can actually close me down.

"I just want the problem gone."

The hangars, where people live and work, are between 40 and 50 metres away from the industrial-zoned 101 Aerodrome Rd.
The hangars, where people live and work, are between 40 and 50 metres away from the industrial-zoned 101 Aerodrome Rd.

Medical officer of health "concerned"

Alexander's doctor referred his case to Bay of Plenty public health organisation Toi Te Ora in February.

Medical Officer of Health Dr Jim Miller said that as part of their investigation, Toi Te Ora had an environmental consultancy agency look into the dust issue.

Testing found nearly all of the materials stored and handled at the address could produce dust particles small enough to be inhaled and cause health issues.

Symptoms reported by workers and residents matched those known to be associated with being exposed to the fine organic dust.

The report, released in May, concluded: "Dust emissions from the bulk materials activities at 101 Aerodrome Rd are having adverse health effects on workers and residents in de Havilland Way.

"The effects were intermittent and appear to coincide with dry, windy conditions and a lack of effective dust control at 101 Aerodrome Rd."

Dr Miller said he was "concerned" and wanted to see the issue addressed quickly.

Toi Te Ora would work with regulators and monitor how they, and businesses, responded to reduce the dust and protect the public, he said.

Worksafe has also noted issues with the site.

A spokeswoman for the workplace safety watchdog said Worksafe issued dust-related improvement notices to 101 Aerodrome Rd tenant RMD Transport in January relating to a lack of health monitoring of workers, not adhering to site practices and loading/unloading trucks.

She said the notices were complied with by March.


Build a wall, or just move

Building owner Bob Clarkson admitted there was a problem in 2014 with tenants at 101 Aerodrome Rd being "a bit lax" about dust, resulting in complaints from neighbouring residents and workers.

He said the tenants "cleaned up their act" and the situation settled down again until a few months ago, when one became "blase" about dust.

Clarkson said as soon as he was made aware of the new dust issues, he "ordered [the tenant] off the site".

He was satisfied other tenants were generally compliant and looking to improve processes.

All crushing of palm kernel expeller - a dusty process - was now done off-site, he said.

Clarkson said he was also willing to revisit an idea pitched in 2014 of building a wall or screen fence between the building and the hangers.

He said there was a wider issue, however, of people being allowed to - and choosing to -live in next door to industrial operations, and the 24/7 noise, discharges and other disturbances that came with them.

"We shouldn't mix residential with industrial areas.

"Why not simply go and buy somewhere else?"

Two companies leased the seven stores in his building - RMD Transport and Nutrinza. Each also sublet some space to other businesses.

Warren Morritt, managing director of Nutrinza, said his business was taking the dust issue seriously even though past monitoring had turned up no breaches.

It had recently introduced multiple new dust controls, including applying oil to the feed as it came out of the blender - a process that "basically eliminates dust" - and improving systems around loading and unloading trucks.

"We are working hard to contain and eliminate dust wherever we have control of it," Morritt said.

He took issue with aspects of the Toi Te Ora-commissioned report, especially the lack of any conclusive analysis to show what the dust found in the De Havilland Way hangar was made up of.

Land excavation work at the nearby airport over summer blew fine silt and sand all over the area, he said, and he believed it was "highly likely" to be the true cause of the spike in health issues in that period.

He wanted to see more thorough testing and monitoring and said the company was happy to work with regulators and its neighbours.

Mark Sherson of RMD Transport declined to comment for this story.