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Are our air quality standards working

In the Local Government magazine archives we found a press release from the Environment Minister at the time, Marian Hobbs, who in August 2005 claimed new national environmental standards, “will make a real difference” to air quality and health for all.

“This is a great day for the health of New Zealanders. The six new Ministry for the Environment standards will make a real difference – significantly cutting pollution and saving lives,” said Hobbs.

Research shows pollution causes a range of preventable health problems including respiratory illnesses, asthma attacks, reduced immunity, hospitalisations and premature deaths, conceded the ministry.

“A key standard requires regional councils to reduce pollution from fine particles (ie smoke) to a set level by 2013 in our towns and cities. Fine particles are the most concerning air pollutant, as they cause the most significant health problems.

“Research suggests more people in New Zealand die prematurely from fine particle pollution than are killed on our roads,” said Hobbs.

“We need to start action now, particularly to protect our most vulnerable citizens – our children and the elderly.”

And to help meet the fine particle standard, a new design standard for domestic wood burners took effect back in 2005 that, “greatly reduces the amount of fine particles new wood burners can produce in urban areas.”

The other standards set maximum levels for carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and sulphur dioxide in outdoor air, to protect public health.

From 1 September 2005, regional councils and unitary authorities had to start monitoring air quality and publicly report whenever the air in their regions exceeds the standards. The councils were then expected to make a plan for improvement, showing what they will do to fully comply by 2013.

The ministry said back then it had invested more than $800,000 in new air quality monitors to help councils gather accurate information.

“It is up to councils how they achieve the targets,” councils were told. “They have the flexibility to focus on the air quality issues in their area that particularly need improvement.”

The six standards set up almost two decades ago were among our first 14 national environmental standards, all relating to air quality. The first seven came into effect in October 2004, and included banning the burning of tyres and oil in the open; and a new design standard for the collection and destruction of landfill gas. The remaining standard, banning school and hospital incinerators unless they have resource consent, came into effect in October 2006.

The fine particle standard that came into effect in Septmber 2005 required councils to clean up the air by 1 September 2013 to the target level of 50 micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre of air over any daily 24-hour period.

Councils were allowed offsets – where a company applying for resource consent to emit fine particles can offset or reduce overall pollution in that area. Examples of offsets include modernising bus fleets, fitting catalytic converters to buses or council vehicles or replacing open fires with cleaner burning alternatives.

Do you think it has worked over the past 19 years? Let us know, alan@contrafed.co.nz.

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