An application for the use of methyl bromide at the Port of Tauranga is being sought by a company which has already twice breached safety provisions in using the gas this year.
Biosecurity treatments provider Genera lodged an application with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council for the continued use of the gas for logs needing fumigation. If granted, the consent would cover a period of 10 years.
Genera said if not granted, it could mean a loss to the local economy of hundreds of millions of dollars. The company also said the two breaches were at one challenging area of the port and it was no longer using the gas there.
On Monday, submissions to the application closed. The Bay of Plenty Regional Council received 211 submissions, including three in support and two not clear.
Methyl bromide is a colourless, odourless, toxic, non-flammable gas. It is used as a fumigant to kill unwanted pests associated with the movement of goods internationally.
In New Zealand, this allows log exports to India and China, countries which require fumigation. It is considered an effective biosecurity tool against pests coming into New Zealand on imported items. In the Bay of Plenty, methyl bromide is used primarily for quarantine or pre-shipment applications and a resource consent is held by the fumigator.
Regional council consents manager Reuben Fraser said the council understood there were health concerns surrounding methyl bromide, particularly that people cannot easily detect their exposure to it.
The council encouraged people to submit feedback on the application.
"Air quality in Mount Maunganui is an area of high interest for the local community and we understand some have concerns about the use of methyl bromide."
Fraser said there were a number of conditions in place on Genera's current resource consent to protect people working at the port.
However, there have already been two breaches of these conditions this year.
On May 15, there was an exceedance of the allowable methyl bromide concentrations limit on the port's boundary. The regional council issued infringement notices with associated fines for this event.
On July 16, regional council staff carried out some air monitoring over water, about 120m downwind from a ship ventilating methyl bromide. The tolerable exposure limit set by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) for public exposure to methyl bromide was exceeded.
If at least one submitter wants to be heard at a hearing, the regional council must hold a hearing to allow them the opportunity to speak to their submission. A total of 29 submitters stated they want to be heard.
Whareroa marae environment spokesman Joel Ngātuere was one of them, saying in his opinion Genera's breaches had already undermined the system and "it should be gravely concerning for all of us".
"We are definitely in opposition to it. We have real concerns for the health and wellbeing of everybody in the wider Mount Maunganui community."
Clear the Air Mount Maunganui's Emma Jones said, in her view, the current monitoring was not acceptable.
"If you are going to do it here, do it safely. Not next to where our kids play sport, and people fish and work," she said.
"Because it's odourless and invisible, it's a silent killer."
Jones said she wanted Genera to use appropriate sheds to capture methyl bromide or to try debarking logs rather than fumigating.
"We should not have to fight this. This is a very harmful substance."
Genera chief executive Mark Dewdney said the company understood methyl bromide was a "difficult issue" that experts had assessed to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
"The potential economic impact of a biosecurity incursion or a loss of export markets is significant in terms of economic earnings, jobs and community impact."
When asked how it could reassure the community there would be no more breaches, Dewdney said those incidents arose from "one specific and challenging area on the port".
"Genera has advised the industry it will no longer fumigate in that area on the port, and is working with WorkSafe, BOPRC, the port and log exporters to implement this."
Although Genera took "all practicable steps" to use methyl bromide in a manner that was safe for all parties, "the reality is that it is not technically possible to recapture all MB following a fumigation", he said.
It was also not possible to replace methyl bromide use in all applications or markets "as alternatives either do not exist, are not registered for use in NZ, or are not accepted by New Zealand's trading partners".
"However, a decision on the use of a potential replacement ... currently sits with the EPA."
Genera currently recaptures methyl bromide from more than 80 per cent of the log stacks at the port and 100 per cent of containers, Dewdney said.
It was now observing reduced consumption and associated emissions, he said.
In response to concerns regarding methyl bromide monitoring, regional council general manager of regulatory services Sarah Omundsen said the council introduced new rules under the Regional Air Plan which provided for the control of discharges. It also installed extra air monitoring stations to better assess and manage the problem.
"We are investing $500,000 per year to support live air quality monitoring across the 11 monitors and 24/7 compliance system is in place."
Omundsen said the council was committed to addressing air quality issues and was working with all parties "to find a way forward in this complex situation which has been generations in the making".
About 220 tonnes of methyl bromide are used at the Port of Tauranga every year. Much of this is discharged to the air when the fumigation process is complete. However, as of October, any use of methyl bromide must move towards using recapture technology to meet Ministry for Primary Industries regulations. Recapture or destruction of all methyl bromide emissions at the end of fumigation will be compulsory from August 28, 2021.
Different agencies play a role in the regulation and use of methyl bromide in New Zealand and in the Mount Maunganui industrial area. These are:
- The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) decides whether a fumigant like methyl bromide can be used in New Zealand.
- WorkSafe set the rules around safe use of methyl bromide by workers nationally.
- Regional councils can then set regional rules for the use of methyl bromide. Bay of Plenty Regional Council has been the only council that has required a resource consent for methyl bromide use, and this has been in response to community concerns about its use here.
- Individual consents then set specific requirements for individual operators. The current consent for methyl bromide fumigation sets requirements that are more stringent than the EPA's rules. The council's compliance team monitors compliance against the consent conditions.
Source - BOPRC