NZ’s ‘blind eye’ to shipping fumes prompts Sounds residents to test the air
More than a decade after 86 countries signed an agreement to tackle air pollution from ships, is New Zealand finally coming to the table? Alice Angeloni reports.
Everyday just before 2pm, two ferries dock side-by-side. As they start their engines, thick plumes of dark smoke rise from their funnels and hang in the air.
A fresh northerly wind is channelled through the steep slopes of the Marlborough Sounds onto Picton foreshore. It’s not an uncommon breeze for the portside town.
But marine and environmental engineer Brent Yardley, who lives in the Sounds, says the smoke is only half the worry.
The invisible fumes; the sour, sulphurous taste that’s left in your throat, that’s a concern, he says.
People in the Marlborough Sounds are worried about what shipping fumes are doing to their health, but with no air monitoring in Picton since 2012, how can they know?
An international agreement to prevent air pollution from ships came into force in 2005. It had 86 signatory nations. New Zealand was not one of them.
Last year, Victoria University’s Dr Bevan Marten said the fact New Zealand was not a signatory, and its lack of action over air pollution from shipping, was “an international embarrassment”.
Marten said air quality monitoring in Auckland, Tauranga and Wellington suggested shipping was a key source of sulphur dioxide emissions. The burning of low quality, bunker fuel oil was a significant source of nitrogen oxides and fine particulates, which were known to be carcinogenic.
Ministry of Transport international connections manager Tom Forster said last week any Government decision to sign the agreement, the MARPOL Annex VI, would be informed by public consultation.
“The ministry has begun the process to obtain Cabinet approval to consult,” he said.
Each year 7500 ships rolled in and out of Port Marlborough, most of these were KiwiRail’s Interislander ferries and Strait Shipping’s Bluebridge ferries, carting freight and passengers between the North and South Island.
Yardley, founder of the Picton Air Quality group, said large ships entering the harbour ran on heavy fuel oil, containing high levels of sulphur.
Petrol and diesel cars on New Zealand’s roads were required to have “ultra low or zero sulphur”, meaning less than 0.001 per cent, but ships were allowed to have a sulphur content more than 3000 times that, at no more than 3.5 per cent.
High concentrations of sulphur dioxide in the air generally led to the formation of other sulphur oxides. Sulphur oxides could react with other compounds in the air to form particulate patter, or PM.
PM caused health problems such as lung cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, for example heart attacks.
“When cruise liners dock in European Union ports, they are legally required to switch to a cleaner diesel, with lower sulphur levels,” Yardley said.
The Sounds area was particularly prone to air pollution because the steep-sided narrow valleys trapped emissions low to the water, he said.
“Why are we turning a blind eye?”
But Port Marlborough chief executive Rhys Welbourne said shipping was the most environmentally friendly mode of transport per tonne of cargo.
“Emissions and air quality improvements are important to us. I’m not sure all air quality issues in Picton can be blamed on shipping though.
“Outside of the ferries we have between 80 to 90 large vessel calls per year. Over half of those are cruise ships, generally with modern, efficient engines.
“One thing the port is working on is shore power connection options for ferries in berths that would reduce the need for generators to be run on board. This is something that we would look to implement in any future wharf development.
“We’re also looking at ways to improve environmental outcomes across our business from recycling to electric vehicle charging stations around the ferry terminals and adding electric vehicles to our own fleet.
“It’s a shame the group didn’t come to the port directly, I’d be interested to hear from them, perhaps we can work together … our door is always open,” he said.
Regional councils must monitor air quality in areas that were “likely” to have a problem.
The Marlborough District Council stopped measuring PM, in particular PM10, in Picton in 2012, and stopped measuring sulphur dioxide in 2004 as the air sheds complied with National Environmental Standards.
But a report prepared for the council in 2014 said further monitoring of PM10 in Picton was needed.
It also said “it is unlikely that the monitoring site captured the worst of the PM10 concentrations in Picton”.
The report recommended they established a new monitoring site.
Council environmental science and monitoring manager Alan Johnson said in 2014 the council decided no further monitoring was required “and it was put on hold” until the 2018/19 financial year.
Johnson said the council did not currently have funding or resources to monitor sulphur dioxide and it was not “currently a priority in our environmental programmes”.
The council planned to measure PM10 in Picton next year, Johnson said this week.
But Picton Air Quality were taking matters into their own hands.
They planned to set up their own air monitoring instrument on top of the pirate ship at the children’s playground on Picton’s waterfront.
The device would measure four gasses plus PM10 and PM2.5.
Government funding was available, and Picton resident and businessman Michael Ogilvie-Lee said he would fund the shortfall.
“If it’s correct that they’re burning the lowest quality fuel, then that’s just blowing in all over me everyday at work, and over kids in that playground,” Ogilvie-Lee said.
“As a resident it seems that the council is looking at it, Niwa is looking at it, the harbourmaster is looking at it, but no-one’s doing anything.
“It can’t be that difficult to put an air monitoring station directly behind the ferry over a children’s playground.
“At worst, if we have an air monitoring station, we can learn that the air is safe and same thing, if there is a problem, we’ve sorted it, identified it and we’re doing something about it.”
Interislander general manager Mark Thompson said in recent years their teams had worked to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions while operating an efficient and reliable service.
“All diesel engines will produce smoke over short periods when starting and when changing load. Both of these will occur as we manoeuvre the ships during arrival and departures.
“We work hard to minimise these effects by ensuring our engines are well-maintained and carefully monitored. Some smoke is, however, inevitable.
“We have undertaken many projects to reduce our fuel consumption, including a number carried out in partnership with the Government’s EECA (Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority).
“These have included an upgrade of [a] real-time performance monitoring system to optimise sailings and improve fuel efficiency, and propeller modifications to improve sailing efficiency and cut fuel use.
“This has seen us reduce our total fuel usage per sailing.”
KiwiRail joined the Climate Leaders Coalition this year committing to measuring and reporting its greenhouse gas emissions and to working with suppliers to reduce emissions, Thompson said.
“Our next generation of ferries are likely to employ new technologies to ensure greater fuel savings and emissions reduction,” he said.
“KiwiRail supports all efforts to protect the environment, including the gathering of data to assess the impact of activities.”
Bluebridge declined to comment.