Concerns raised about air quality

Long-term trends show Otago air quality is improving, but Otago regional councillors have raised concerns about the region’s regularly smoky skies.

The Otago Regional Council’s absence of monitoring in Balclutha and Oamaru and the dependence of some residents on coal to heat their homes were among concerns raised at a council meeting this week.

Discussion at the data and information committee meeting came after the council decided during its long-term plan process earlier this year to halt its air-quality improvement work until 2025.

The Otago Daily Times reported last month local and national experts in air quality were shocked by the decision.

This week, councillors received a 67-page report, "State and Trends of Air Quality in the Otago Region, 2010-19", which showed that at seven of eight monitored sites in Otago the amount of particulate matter in the air breached national standards.

Only central Dunedin was "the odd one out" and got a passing grade, council air quality scientist Sarah Harrison said.

Central Dunedin had different typical emission sources, meteorology and climate from the other sites, she said.

Air-quality records for the past 10 years showed Alexandra, Arrowtown, Balclutha, Clyde, Cromwell, Milton and Mosgiel breached limits set for human health, she said.

Cr Michael Deaker said he was looking forward to the resurgence of the council’s work on air quality.

But he like others took aim at coal burning for home heating.

"Why we are still enabling people to burn coal?"

Cr Kevin Malcolm said Waitaki was at or near the top in the estimated number of premature deaths, hospital admissions and restricted activity days among Otago districts.

Despite this, Oamaru was not monitored by the council.

Cr Carmen Hope said she was appalled that the air quality had been diminishing in Balclutha before monitoring stopped there a few years ago.

The council needed to "stop forgetting about Balclutha", Cr Bryan Scott said.

But he noted Balclutha’s air quality was better than the places the report identified as improving.

Without air quality changing, the number of air-quality breaches across Otago would soon rise as the national standards changed and smaller-sized air particles were monitored, Cr Marian Hobbs said.

Council strategy, policy and science general manager Gwyneth Elsum said in Alexandra, Arrowtown, Clyde, Cromwell and Milton, there had been improvements.

Those were the places with the strictest air plan rules for wood burner emissions and thermal efficiency.

And they were places where the council previously incentivised replacing older burners, she said.

Importantly, air quality was complicated in areas that were experiencing rapid urban growth, Ms Elsum said.

Towns in Otago had different climates and geography, and changing population sizes, and these local factors all contributed to air quality.

A review of the current air plan for Otago is to be completed by 2025.

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