Toxic chemical a danger to Wellington

Toxic chemical a danger to Wellington

It's time to question why methyl bromide, a highly toxic and potent ozone-destroying gas, is being routinely used on our waterfront, close to the heart of the city, and near to residential apartments, businesses, Victoria University campus, the stadium and our cruise-ship terminal.

Methyl bromide is used to fumigate cars and other imports, and occasionally logs, on the port, but the fumigation process is primitive and the controls are woefully inadequate, and result in residues of methyl bromide wafting around in our environment.

The gas is pumped into containers sitting on the wharf and left for about 24 hours. The containers are then opened up and it is released directly into the atmosphere, where it can drift considerable distances, depending on the wind direction and strength.

It's a heavy gas and so it can drift long distances, way beyond the boundaries of the port, to neighbouring office buildings such as the BNZ, the Rugby Union, the railway station, Victoria University campus, nearby apartment buildings and, of course, the stadium.

But it has no odour or smell or warning agent, so there's no way for workers or other people living or working near to the waterfront to know when they are being exposed to it.

Air modelling in Nelson has demonstrated that methyl bromide can drift more than a kilometre once it's released into the atmosphere. This means that it's almost impossible to contain and that everyone who is working or living near a site where containers are fumigated is at risk of exposure.

It's difficult to find out how many containers are fumigated each year, but workers have told me that as many as 10 or 12 containers can be fumigated each day. That would release a huge amount of toxic gas into our otherwise pure and pristine air.

In my view, it's simply unsafe to use this dangerous gas so close to the heart of our city. And there's no excuse for releasing it directly into the atmosphere, where it cannot be contained, especially when there are technologies available to recapture the gas.

Nelson has set up a recapture facility at its port, and our port should do the same. The Auckland port fumigates cars and other produce with heat treatment instead of methyl bromide and our port should be using this alternative, safe technology as well.

There are serious health and safety concerns for the workers who do the fumigating, because exposure to high quantities of the gas can be fatal. It is highly toxic to the lungs and the nervous system, and there have been claims that it is implicated in various diseases such as motor neurone disease, which port workers have suffered from.

So it's time to ask why the port is using a gas that can seriously affect the health of port workers, as well as others living near the fumigation facility.

Greater Wellington Regional Council is part-owner of our port, along with Manawatu-Whanganui Regional Council. These councils are supposed to be environmental champions that protect the health of our environment.

Why, then, are they dragging the chain on this issue, and allowing it to be used on our waterfront, without recapture facilities?

Why aren't they insisting that the port use alternative technologies like heat treatment to fumigate cars and other produce, and recapture technology when alternative technologies aren't feasible?

New Zealand pledged to phase out the use of methyl bromide gas 16 years ago, but ports around New Zealand continue to release tons of methyl bromide into the atmosphere each year, effectively using the atmosphere as a sewer.

In 2011, New Zealand used 469 tonnes of methyl bromide. Every 70 tonnes of methyl bromide we release destroys about 35 tonnes of ozone.

This is madness when you consider that New Zealand is more affected by the ongoing depletion of the ozone layer than most other nations, because of our proximity to the ozone hole over the Antarctic. As the ozone layer thins, more harmful ultraviolet rays reach the Earth.

Europe and other countries have banned the use of methyl bromide, and it's about time we followed suit.

The Environmental Protection Agency has stipulated that methyl bromide should not be used after 2021 without systems to recover and recycle the gas, but that is eight years away, and fumigators may seek an extension to the phase-out time frame.

In my view, the harmful effects of methyl bromide are such that action is needed now, not in eight years.

It's time for Greater Wellington Regional Council to direct the port to invest in alternative fumigation technology and recapture technology if it wants to continue to use this toxic gas.


Sue Kedgley