About 2500 non-compliant fires are still fogging up Rotorua air with less than a year for locals to change their heating before they start being fined up to $20,000 under the city's air quality bylaw.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council (BOPRC) reported Rotorua had the worst winter air quality of any airshed in the North Island with about 228 tonnes of fine particulates discharged annually.

The safe and acceptable standards, set by the Ministry for Environment, is 60 tonnes.

Solid-fuel burners used for home heating were reported as Rotorua's biggest source of urban air pollution at 58 per cent. This included wood burners, multi burners, and open fires.

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The Rotorua Air Quality Control Bylaw was implemented in 2010, and from January 1, 2020, non-compliant solid fuel burners - old wood burners, multi-fuel burners and coal burners - will be deemed illegal.

A non-compliant fuel burner is all coal or multifuel burners and wood burners installed before September 2005.

This means those 2500 households that still have non-compliant fires could be fined up to $20,000 if it is not changed out by January.

Regional council senior policy analyst Karen Parcell said the council's number one objective was to clean up Rotorua's winter air pollution.

She said the regional council had been working with the Rotorua community, Rotorua Lakes Council, and other key stakeholders for the past 10 years to upgrade and replace old, smoky fires to cleaner-burning technology.

"This will only happen if we can stop more fires, and their smoke, from being introduced into an already polluted airshed."

The Rotorua Airshed. Image / Supplies.
The Rotorua Airshed. Image / Supplies.

But with an application processing time of 18-hours for a Solid-Fuel Burner Resource Consent, some are reluctant to make the change.

Pensioner Bill Brislen recently began the process of changing to a compliant burner which he said would set him back $4500.

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While his original Kent-burner was legally installed, it dated back to 1983 so he decided to replace it with a compliant burner.

He said the application process, which included a $395 building consent, was confusing and he had concerns for elderly people being able to afford the required change.

On top of his consent, he said he paid about $3100 to buy and have the burner delivered and had estimates of $1000 for the installation.

While he agreed it was important the bylaw was implemented, he felt the process lacked incentive for people to make the change as the benefits may not seem immediately obvious to those required to change.

He believed many of the non-compliant households would either go cold in the winter or continue to use the non-compliant burners.

Parcell said the enforcement of the bylaw was a community health issue and everyone needed to play their part.

She said if a property owner wanted to add more smoke by installing a fire, then it was fair to get them to apply for a resource consent and offset the pollution they would add.

The Clean Air Rotorua Programme budgeted lending $2 million per year for the next three years to people who need to upgrade their fires. The operating budget for the programme was set at $620,000 for the 2018/2019 year.

Toi Te Ora Public Health medical officer of health Dr Jim Miller said air pollution was a recognised cancer-causing agent and poor air quality had short and long-term impacts on health.

"The increased risk of disease results in avoidable deaths, admissions to hospital and activity restricted days," Miller said.

There were an estimated nine deaths, seven hospital admissions and 12,500 activity restricted days attributable to air pollution each year, according to the Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand study (HAPINZs).

Miller added this was at a social and economic cost to the community of $35m.

Miller said while it was difficult and complex to attribute these numbers to air pollution, HAPINZs used sophisticated statistical models to produce these estimates of health loss.

The regional council has two schemes set up to help residents replace heating in their homes.

The Hot Swap Scheme sees the appliance supply and installation costs added to a property's rates to be paid back over 10 years. Some loans are interest-free.

The Low Income Heating Grant helps homeowners with limited means to upgrade an old fire.

To qualify for the grant the household occupants must have a combined annual household income of $50,000 (gross) or less.

More information about the scheme and options for households is available on the council site cleanairrotorua.co.nz.