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The Bulletin: Nitrates in the water, and the risks

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Risks of nitrates in the water, no additional Covid found in New Plymouth, and Westport faces horror flooding cleanup.

Groundwater in Canterbury appears to be increasingly unhealthy from the presence of nitrates, a consequence in part of intensive dairy farming. Stuff’s Amber Allott reports that while a survey of more than 300 wells found the average nitrate level was below international standards, 13 wells in the Ashburton area alone were above those international standards. On a limited base of data, just under half of wells had increasing concentrations of nitrate. There are also questions around those standards in the first place, and whether they’re set too high to start with.

What are the effects of nitrates? Radio NZ’s Farah Hancock had a piece unpacking this with experts around the start of the year, and if high nitrate concentrations are in drinking water it’s a real worry. The current standards are set around avoiding “blue baby syndrome”, which is fatal and as bad as it sounds. But even at lower concentrations, nitrates have been linked with higher rates of bowel cancer, which is unusually prevalent in dairy-heavy Canterbury and Southland. A Waikato version of that story was published more recently by LDR’s Andy Campbell. And as Dr Mike Joy and Dr Michael Baker wrote in 2019, high nitrate concentrations also have an impact on ecosystem health.

High nitrate levels don’t necessarily have to be an outcome of farming – it’s more a question of the fertiliser used. Greenpeace campaigner Steve Abel recently pointed the finger at the companies Ravensdown and Ballance, who supply the vast majority of synthetic fertiliser in NZ. 1News had a piece on the fallout from that claim, with the companies stressing that a ban on synthetic nitrogen would do immense economic damage. It should also be noted that farming industry lobby groups are aware of the issue and trying to address it. Dairy NZ boss Tim Mackle said an immense amount of research is currently going into solving nitrogen loss.


Further wastewater testing in New Plymouth has found no additional evidence of Covid-19, reports our live updates. There are also no reports of community cases. However, testing rates remain fairly low across the region. And the local iwi Ngati Ruanui put a release out yesterday morning wondering why New Plymouth wastewater was being tested, but not that of places like Pātea or Hāwera. On Covidy stuff generally, Justin Giovannetti’s piece this morning about how some countries are getting ahead of the need to do mass vaccination is worth a read.


Westport is still in a state of emergency after flooding, and the cleanup is looking long and arduous. The Greymouth Star, published through the ODT, reports thousands of tonnes of flood-damaged waste have been left behind. About 100 houses have been “red-stickered” – so damaged they are unliveable. Meanwhile the help that arrived in the immediate aftermath is starting to pack up, leaving residents to shoulder a heavy burden. Just a note on that if you’re wondering how to help – the town has asked that no more goods be delivered, because they don’t have storage space, but a mayoral relief fund has been set up for cash donations.


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The government’s state house building programme hasn’t added as much to the overall housing stock as you might assume, according to a new report from the NZ Herald’s Thomas Coughlan. It turns out more than half of the 8000 new state houses were existing properties, largely bought on the private market, which does little to improve supply. National’s Nicola Willis said “it reduces the number of homes available to private renters and first-home buyers – potentially exacerbating the issue the government said it would solve.” Newshub’s Zane Small has gone into the numbers to put them in context against the previous government.


Two major carpet companies are going at each other over sustainability claims, reports Hugh Stringleman for Farmers Weekly. Bremworth only uses wool now, and claims that’s a more natural alternative to synthetic carpets. But Godfrey Hirst, who make synthetic carpets, are pursuing legal action to get them to change that marketing, saying it is misleading. Without wanting to take sides in an ongoing legal dispute, the story contains a lot of fascinating arguments that show how complicated a claim like “sustainable” can become.


Later this week, we’re going to get the results of the Commerce Commission’s market study into supermarkets, and whether customers are getting fair prices. Speaking to Breakfast, Consumer NZ’s Jon Duffy has got an early shot in, highlighting price tracking that shows some of what is advertised as a “special” is anything but. He suggested that could be a breach of the Fair Trading Act.


Got some feedback about The Bulletin, or anything in the news? Get in touch with me at thebulletin@thespinoff.co.nz

After a slow start, Canada is leading the Covid-19 vaccination chart with 71% of its people receiving a jab. Europe is catching up fast.

Right now on The Spinoff: George Driver investigates the current spike in coal use for electricity, and how much it matters. Timothy Welch writes about why the image of cyclists as elitist is so silly. Central Otago mayor Tim Cadogan writes about getting vaccinated, and his mother’s experience during the polio epidemics that have since been eliminated by vaccination. Michael Andrew reports on the explosive growth of a South Auckland tech firm. Emily Writes has a call to action about engaging with the anti-lockdown types seen protesting recently in Sydney. And books editor Catherine Woulfe introduces a tranche of new books that comprehensively rule.


For a feature today, a remarkable tall tale – which I’ll admit, I couldn’t work out if it was true or not – about how musician Billy Joel’s career took off after stalling. It comes from the memoirs of Keith Yates, who in the 70s was mooching around rural California, working in a record store, and trying to make it as a music critic. As he tells it, he managed to turn Piano Man into a hit long after the record company had given up on it. Here’s an excerpt from this wild yarn:

On Monday Morning I phoned Columbia Records’ promotion man up in San Francisco, Ken Reuther, thanked him for sending the album, said Billy might be the most natural talent I’d heard in my entire reviewing career – all eight months’ worth – but that somehow I must have misplaced the press kit. I wondered if he could slip another bio and a couple of photos in the mail right away for my upcoming feature in the Rampage. Reuther said he didn’t have anything to send. I didn’t understand.

He backed up, said he’d worked the artist’s first record, on a tiny label, a year or two earlier, and most of the few people who bought it were probably just friends and relatives. Said Columbia’s A&R [artists & repertoire] guys in New York heard some potential, signed him, but the new album had gone nowhere in the months since its release.

“Well, you must have a photo of the album cover I can run with the feature. I need something.”

He countered that Columbia was busy pushing out seven or eight new pop and rock releases a week, and that I “should’ve written it up when it was fresh, maybe it would’ve made a difference.” Once in a while a new artist takes off. The others disappear.


US gymnastics superstar Simone Biles has withdrawn from an event at the Olympics for mental health reasons. Stuff reports this morning she said she was in the wrong headspace to be part of the team event, which meant after a shaky first run she pulled out. Biles didn’t leave the arena, staying to cheer her teammates on. In the end, her withdrawal opened the way for Russia (or the Russian Olympic Committee) to win.


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