There’s something in the air in Reefton

Tony Fortune with his weather diaries. LOIS WILLIAMS / FILES
Tony Fortune with his weather diaries. LOIS WILLIAMS / FILES
Reefton’s long-serving 
weather guru Tony Fortune says if people learned to burn coal correctly the West Coast town would not have a problem with air pollution, except perhaps on the odd day when the weather afflicts the Inangahua Valley with a temperature inversion and the locals crank up their fires. Reefton-based reporter Lois Williams has first-hand experience of the town’s coal-burning dilemma.


Justice of the peace and retired school teacher Tony Fortune has been keeping meticulous handwritten records of Reefton weather since he was a boy of 11, in 1963.

He hasn’t missed a day in that time: if he’s out of town, he delegates the job.

He flicks through his current exercise book to find the two days last month when Reefton’s air failed to meet the environmental standard — a maximum 50 micrograms of the tiny particles known as PM10s per cubic metre of air.

Reefton, nestled between surrounding hills and terraces, is the only town on the West Coast with a gazetted "airshed". That means the West Coast Regional Council must constantly monitor the air quality and sound the alarm when it hits levels considered to be a health risk.

Last month’s "exceedances", as the council calls them, were the first since 2016.

"There were two days in June when we exceeded the limit, but not by much," Mr Fortune says.

Close-up of weather log.
Close-up of weather log.

"June 21, for instance, was -2degC and foggy, and when that happens the humidity goes way up. It actually cleared later that day and we got up to 9deg. That’s warmer than the usual winter temperature; we’re usually around 4 or 5 degrees."

That weather pattern can produce a temperature inversion, with a layer of warm air higher in the atmosphere trapping colder air and smoke beneath, he says.

"One of our UE students did a study a few years ago and found quite a lot of the pollution is between roof height and 20m above that. The air flows down the hillsides into the town and makes the smoke rise, but the warmer air above keeps a lid on it.

"You can actually see the layers sometimes when you come into Reefton from Westport — the wind can’t get down to the inversion layer and disperse it. But the town is tucked below the worst of it so you’re not actually breathing the more concentrated stuff."

On some of his many tramping expeditions he has experienced the temperature difference.

Reefton in the snow.
Reefton in the snow.

"You go up the hill and you feel the wind coming from the north — it can be 5deg warmer up there, and you come back down into the cold."

The offending smoke comes from the multifuel burners many Reefton residents rely on to stave off the winter chill. but it doesn’t have to create an air quality problem, Mr Fortune says.

"If we burned our coal properly it would not produce all that smoke. The trick is to get the wood burning well, then add a little coal, and so on — keep it burning. Little and often. Don’t heap it on and damp it down or you get that thick sulphurous stuff coming out of the chimney. If you are doing it correctly you shouldn’t see much smoke at all."

Today’s coal and wood burners are far more efficient than in the past and the pervasive smell of coal smoke is rare, he says.

"When I was kid I could be at one end of town down by the racecourse and you couldn’t see hills at the other end, because everyone had open fires and coal ranges roaring. Those days are long gone."

But the pressure is still increasing on councils and communities to cut carbon emissions to limit climate change.

"The PM10 limit used to be 100; now they’re down to 50, which is pretty low and we’ve only hit that twice this year, which is not too bad," he says.

"Looking at our levels, we got to 50 one day and 52 the other. If it gets any lower they’ll make it impossible to conform. I was in Beijing last year and the level was 150. That’s when you complain!"

A frosty -9degC July morning on the Inangahua. In earlier years the river has been half-frozen at...
A frosty -9degC July morning on the Inangahua. In earlier years the river has been half-frozen at the powerhouse swing bridge.

About 14 years ago, the regional council was working with the Reefton community to trial electrostatic chimney filters known as OEKU tubes, with some promising results.

But it put that project on hold when the government announced it was reviewing the national environmental standard for air quality, the council’s planning and science manager, Hadley Mills, says.

"There was no point in going further til we knew what the new rules would be and finally it looks like it’s coming out in the next few months, so we now have some idea of what’s in it."

Among the new air quality requirements, councils must measure levels of even smaller particles, PM 2.5s, which are now thought to be more harmful to human health than PM10s.

A list on the Ministry for the Environment’s website shows the brands and models of solid fuel heaters that will in future be the only ones that can legally be installed. Not one of them is capable of burning coal.

Regional councillor John Hill has observed that the new rules will stifle the science and development of products that could trap smoke particles and allow people to burn coal cleanly.

And you’ll hear it said in Reefton, not entirely in jest, that if it ever comes down to banning coal for home heating, Paparoa Prison will have to open a new wing for the local outlaws.

While winters lately have been milder in the town, they can still be bone-chillers and Mr Fortune’s records appear to show a roughly 20-year cyclical weather pattern.

"In 1961 we had 14 inches of snow on the ground, that’s what got me interested in weather. In 1982 we had days of hoar frost and the Inangahua River was half-frozen over at the swingbridge. We had five all-day fogs, the taps were frozen. And in July 2001 we had frosts day after day, minus 9, minus 11 ... up to minus 13 degrees."

The sort of temperatures that might laugh at a heatpump, perhaps.

Heatpumps are not as effective in older-style homes or affordable for many locals, he says.

"My thought is people have to keep warm, but they just can’t afford the electricity. Everyone says heatpumps are cheap but I know a couple of pensioners who got them and their monthly bill went from $120 to $500 a month. They had them adjusted but it still cost them a lot more than wood and coal."

Some older folk in Reefton also receive free fuel. It’s not uncommon for people to go out and get a load of wood for a neighbour in need, he says.

He wonders why the town is the only one in Westland where air quality is under official scrutiny.

"I’ve been to other places on the Coast in evening, and when it’s calm it’s equally as bad as Reefton. It’s just that somehow, we’re the culprits."

The regional council recently received a $60,000 Envirolink grant to further research smoke pollution in Reefton and find out if there is a link between meteorological conditions and the levels of PM10s and PM2.5s in the airshed. That study is under way.

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