Thursday, May 13, 2010

A breath of soiled air

Steel plant contaminants and traffic fumes: a 'dangerous mix' warns local resident & Fare-Free New Zealand editor.

['The Aucklander' newspaper article: 13th May 2010]

Otahuhu residents are fuming over Pacific Steel's push to keep pumping smoke into their skies. Doctors talk of possible illnesses from pollution.

Rowena Orejana reports:

Great white puffs of smoke spew from the side of the Pacific Steel factory in Otahuhu. A few hundred metres behind, a bonfire is set and black smoke billows out to the sky.

Roger Fowler, Mangere resident for 30 years, gazes at it from a distance. "It's hard to determine whether that fire is in the compound of Pacific Steel but it makes my point. When you combine the air pollutants from the company with pollution from other sources, you get a dangerous mix in the air we breathe."

He says doctors have raised serious concerns about the number of respiratory ailments in the community. "That isn't necessarily all attributed from the plant. But contaminants have no DNA. We wouldn't know if they are from the plant, the traffic congestion or from other sources," he says.

Mr Fowler is angry Pacific Steel is asking Auckland Regional Council to renew for another 20 years its consent for discharging air contaminants.

"South Auckland has been used as a dumping ground for dirty industries for years," says Mr Fowler, claiming these industries would not be tolerated in other suburbs.

Some 73 submissions opposed the application. However, only Mr Fowler attended the council hearings. He suspects others were put off attending by delays which lasted almost a year.

Mr Fowler says the buffer zone between the steel plant and residential area has diminished over the years.

"An early childhood centre is about to open in a few weeks followed by a Tongan Community Centre. A fruit processing plant and three large market gardens are also located just beyond the boundary fence of the Pacific Steel plant."

Backyard gardens are also becoming increasingly popular. "It is evident that airborne toxins can be ingested through the soil and vegetables. Should local residents be warned to stop consuming home-grown produce?"

Pacific Steel's general manager, Ian Jones, maintains the company has been environmentally responsible. Recently, it invested $6 million in cleaning the site, improving emissions and capturing dust.

"From a global perspective and comparative benchmarks, Pacific Steel is one of the lowest carbon-emitting steel manufacturers," he says, pointing out the firm has recently received an environmental choice accreditation. "This accreditation recognises our processes. Our products can be used in Green Star buildings," he says.

Green Star is a national voluntary, environmental rating scheme developed by the Green Building Council and the building industry. "We recycle 98 per cent of our input materials," Mr Jones stresses.

If not for Pacific Steel, scrap metals would have been shipped to Asia to steel manufacturers then shipped back to New Zealand. Those manufacturers do not have the same environmental standards as Pacific Steel, he says.

The 20-year consent is critical to the company to provide long-term security to its investments as well as to its clients.

Mike Harvey, a consents officer with the regional council, proposed a 15-year permit.

"It is considered that the environmental effects that may be generated by the activity could be minor or could be adequately avoided, remedied or mitigated by the imposition of conditions," he told the hearing, which ended on April 29.

It was chaired by former regional council chairwoman Gwen Bull, now an independent commissioner. The decision is expected by May 20.

By and large, says Mr Fowler, the community just wants the strictest safeguards in place to protect people's health.

"I want my grandchildren to be able to grow up and thrive in a healthy environment."

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