- Date published:
11:40 am, February 2nd, 2021 - 20 comments
Categories: climate change, community democracy, disaster, Environment, local government - Tags: Accountability Action, Amberley tyre fire, ecan, FENZ, Hurunui District Council, pollution, Te Whare Whero
This post first appeared on Te Whare Whero
The huge tyre fire near Amberley in North Canterbury last Friday is in an area with a high water table, extreme fire risk in summer, two kilometres from a town of 2000 residents, and on the edge of one of NZ’s premier wine regions.
The extreme risks to immediate and long-term health, from smoke and leachates from a tyre fire are well known. Some of the large number of particulates and gases released are highly toxic and can cause both acute and chronic health problems. A tyre burns as hot as coal and emits almost as much carbon dioxide. Because of the extreme heat generated the smoke plume rises high and the toxins can be carried many kilometres, polluting air, plants, soil, and water and harming humans, stock, and wildlife. The soil under the fire will be heavily contaminated, with the potential for toxins to be easily leached into surface and subterranean water systems. (1)
The owner of the block of land where the tyres were dumped, Warren Hislop, was permitted by Hurunui District Council’s ten-year plan to lease his land to a tyre disposal firm to store waste tyres before permanent disposal. That latter stage never happened, and the pile grew until it contained somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 tyres.
It was the subject of constant complaints locally for its potential impact on the health and the safety of people who lived close by – from the threat of potential fires and contamination of ground water – and the adverse impact on the value of property.
After a deliberate fire in a smaller pile of about 20,000 tyres was started two years ago, local people decided to take matters into their own hands. Julia McLean, then a Hurunui District councillor, formed Accountability Action (AA) and with a waste management consultant, Bruce Gledhill, put together a viable plan for disposal (chipping, transport, and use in cement production), raised pledges of money locally, and applied for grants from the Canterbury Waste Joint Committee and The Waste Minimisation Fund. The group had wide-ranging support including FENZ, HDC, the Chair of ECAN, all the Canterbury Mayors, local schools and the grape growers’ association. (2)
AA’s plan would have cleared the pile within three months from getting funding approved and established an important template for dealing with the problem of waste tyres across NZ.
However what they did not have was the support of the landowner and his lawyer who in May last year approached ECAN to submit another application for funding, in competition with AA’s application.
When approached by Hislop and his lawyer, Instead of acting as an honest broker to support the community group which had done all the work, and assuaging any legitimate concerns the landowner and his lawyer had (3), officers decided to submit a second application for funding. By so doing they effectively undermined their own Chair’s support for the project, shafted AA and then reinforced the impression of bad faith by refusing to confirm that was what they were doing when asked by the media.
AA eventually agreed to withdraw its application in order to move matters forward, and to support ECAN’s application which was based on AA’s plan.
Then, nothing much happened except lots of meetings, until someone set fire to the entire pile last Friday.
The resulting fire, whilst contained, may burn for weeks and when it can be handled, it seems the landowner has undertaken to clear the remaining heavily contaminated material and arrange for its disposal in the Kate Valley landfill – if KV will take that much heat damaged tyre waste. How he will do this and meet the very considerable cost (4) is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps ECAN has a plan.
The CEO of ECAN was quick to point the finger of blame in the direction of the arsonist, and claimed they were just “weeks away from a solution”. A day later, at a local meeting, ECAN officers blamed the inaction on the limitations of the organisation’s legal powers.
The questions I want an answer to, and which were sidestepped at that meeting, is why ECAN was not more proactive at an earlier stage and why, when approached by the landowner – who was complicit in creating the toxic mess and who had made money from it – officers chose to collaborate with him and to blindside the community group which had done all the work.
The Mayor of Hurunui District Council was quick to tell people now is not the time to apportion blame. Whilst HDC had been prepared to work with AA, the council would do well to reflect on how much effort it had put in to resolving an issue that was caused because its district plan permits people to use their land for such purposes. It might also consider how much support it really gave to the one councillor who took the threat seriously.
Central government should reflect on its failure to deal with this growing environmental threat. This tyre fire will dump a cocktail of toxins onto vineyards, olive groves, and farms where stock will eat polluted grass. NZ’s clean green image is already tarnished. Japan has already rejected NZ honey because of glyphosate residues, what effects will the toxic fallout from this fire have on local honey production, agriculture, horticulture, and viticulture?
It might also reflect on how much responsibility it holds for forcing local government into a largely toothless revenue gathering entity administering centrally imposed laws and as a result often incapable of mounting effective responses to pressing local issues.
How insane is it, that a local council has the powers to seize a person’s property for non-payment of rates, and calling for a rate strike is an illegal act, but when it comes to controlling a highly dangerous activity with obvious potential ill-effects and massive social costs, nothing can be done?
The District Health Board ought to reflect on whether it should have been more proactive in warning the public and relevant agencies of the considerable health risks in the event of a large tyre fire. It might also reflect on how effective its immediate response to anyone directly affected by the smoke has been – stay indoors, put your air con on recycling, try to avoid breathing in the smoke and if you feel unwell see your doctor. I’m pretty sure people could work that much out for themselves.
FENZ – the organization on the front-line – should have added its institutional voice more loudly to the call for this mess to be sorted out quickly, if only to protect its personnel and been more proactive in respect of fire prevention.
The heat generated by a mass tyre fire is enormous, the smoke is thick and oily and contains a vast range of toxic gases and particulates which no one should be anywhere near without full protection equipment, including BA. FENZ top brass acknowledged they have never had to deal with such a fire; all they can do is let it burn and eventually try to separate any unburned material – using local contractors with diggers.
This decision is not solely because the land where the dump is has a high-water table and is where Amberley’s best well is located so contaminated water runoff would be an immediate and long-term ecological disaster – it’s also because using water to fight a large tyre fire demands vast amounts delivered via special nozzles from huge pumps – none of which are available to the volunteer firefighters in rural fire services with their standard pumps and severely limited access to water.
The firefighters also encountered access issues because old machinery had been dumped on the site which begs the question – why weren’t all those hazards assessed, mapped, and a plan quickly put in place to deal with them?
And what did happen to good old fire prevention? North Canterbury had just had the highest temperatures, lowest humidity, and strongest, hottest winds seen in decades. A perfect storm of adverse conditions for a dump of anywhere up to 200,000 waste tyres, haphazardly stored in an area surrounded by pine trees, tinder-dry grass, and old machinery. Even if someone hadn’t set fire to it, a grass fire upwind of it could easily have ignited it.
BUT – the true villains in this tale of multiple layers of culpability, incompetence, or failure to be proactive, are the dumpers. Michael Le Roy and Peter George Benden failed to arrange for proper disposal and hid behind company law to avoid their legal and ethical responsibilities. Le Roy has slid out from under any responsibility by declaring bankruptcy, and the fines and compensation costs levied against Benden are risible when the actual harm and social costs are added up.
A great many officials and officers have presided over this poorly coordinated response to an inappropriate land use permitted by the local council, and as a result have failed to protect both residents’ health and well-being, and an already under threat wider environment.
Officers and officials alike should remember that citing reasons why they could not act at all or act any faster, is to add insult to what may prove to be a terrible injury.
(1) Open tyre fire emissions include “criteria” pollutants, such as particulates, carbon monoxide, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds. They also include “non-criteria” hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), such as polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, furans, hydrogen chloride, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls; and metals such as arsenic, cadmium, nickel, zinc, mercury, chromium, and vanadium. Both criteria and HAP emissions from an open tyre fire can represent significant acute and chronic health hazards. Depending on the length and degree of exposure, these health effects could include irritation of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, respiratory effects, central nervous system depression, and cancer.
(2) Not one of the 42 tyre firms which had used the services of Le Roy and Benden contributed to the AA project when asked to.
(3) These concerns included the completely incorrect assertion that McLean and Gledhill wanted to make money out of the project.
(4) Dumping the material from the first fire involving 20,000 tyres cost $160k.
[front page photo via Stuff/Chris Skelton]