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Photo: Getty Images
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ScienceMay 6, 2018

Now is the time to spend real money on solving our water quality woes

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

If regional councils are to use new funding to address water quality, they could do well to start in Hawke’s Bay, where wood mill effluent continues to be an issue 27 years after a damning report into its effects.

Never has there been a better time to rethink and refresh the care of our rivers, beaches and drinking water. With one billion dollars of funding now available for regional development, and more to come, ensuring water becomes a sustainable resource can and should be a top priority. Pure water is fundamental to a good life.

Now that we have identified upstream origins of pollutants and downstream effects of treating wetlands as swamps we are in a better position to fix contamination problems at source.

I live in Hawke’s Bay, where residents want water quality urgently tackled. Why? Because they have personally experienced the effects of dirty water.

For the past 12 years I have swum at Napier’s Ahuriri Beach, which used to be known, with reason, as Perfume Point. I use it because it is accessible, swimmable at any tide, with no shark threat, and has historically been clean.

This summer, things were different. The La Niña meant mostly northeasterly winds, which have brought warmth – but also some additions, courtesy of a source identifiable only by a few chimney trails in the distance: the Pan Pac pulp mill at Whirinaki.

A Napier family at Perfume Point, now Ahuriri Beach, pre-1931 earthquake. Photo: supplied

Aside from being inspired by buoy swimmers, it turns out there are other advantages to swimming where my grandparents swam. You make friends with an assortment of ocean observers: scientists, former detectives, parole officers, teachers, divers, America’s Cup sailors, and Igor, an electrician from Siberia.

Alan, for example, won’t swim when you can “taste the sawdust” from Whirinaki. He tells me that he no longer dives at Flatrock, near the mill, because diving there stirs up the water “like one of those shake-up Christmas scenes you used to get inside glass spheres”. And he stopped eating flounder ten years ago after cutting open a flounder from his net to find its backbone ‘was like jelly’.

Some 30 years back Greenpeace “parked their ship off Pan Pac’s outlet”, Alan tells me, and wrote a report that declared that if Hawke’s Bay people knew what was going into their water they would be ashamed. He was referring to Greenpeace’s scientific report from 1991 on all our pulp and paper mills. It is short but worth reading. At the time Whirinaki was “the only pulp mill in New Zealand without settling or any secondary treatment”, it said, and waste “with high levels of solids” was discharged after filtering into the sea. This discharged material is “acutely toxic at extremely low levels consisting mainly of fine cellulose fibre possibly accumulating in a relatively confined area due to wind and current”.

The report contains the observation that, unknown to most of the public, cellulose fibre is “highly toxic to fish”. It adds that “the toxic resin and fatty acids also found in the effluent have been known to kill fish in parts per billion in 96 hours” but that “these substances will break down given sufficient secondary treatment”.

Has anything changed? Pan Pac spokesperson Dale Eastham says there is now in place a three-stage biological process acting as a secondary treatment prior to discharging wastes with “improved dilution” to the sea.

Gordon Jackman, one of the scientists who prepared the 1991 report, welcomes any improvements but says he has seen no data, from established baseline impacts, that show significant improvements to the marine environment. And without Regional Council monitoring of waste products still left in the effluent, Jackman says, declared improvements can meet consents but continue to be harmful to marine food chains.

Scientist Gordon Jackman’s options for premium water treatment presented last year to Gisborne District Council

For some, the very name Greenpeace represents unrealistic demands on businesses that create jobs. And with opportunities – especially industrial manufacture – there will always be trade-offs.

Better technologies to process or recycle waste are now available, with some offering the additional benefit of generating fuel. My beach-swimming friend Igor tells me that Russia recently invented a way to treat contaminated water without using chorine.

With public opinion behind them and government money in the offing, now is the time for councils to set up land-based treatment for all towns and cities, especially those beside rivers.

This could also be an opportunity for regional councils to assist groups of farmers to submit well-costed schemes to obtain regional development funds to build smaller catchment dams and irrigation schemes. Councils could facilitate this by setting up online templates for such submissions, similar to the user-friendly public submissions process the government has already been praised for.

Let’s also put in place long-term incentives for councils and companies to provide low-impact emission treatments, complete with independently-monitored compliance regimes.

Steve Liddle is an independent researcher based in Napier.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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