Rio Tinto decision full of dross

Several years ago, a company linked to the Tiwai Point smelter illegally dumped thousands of tonnes of dross at several sites across Southland, after going into liquidation. Last week flood waters invaded a paper mill in Gore, Southland, where a large portion of the dross had been dumped illegally several years ago. A decision had been reached to remove it, and then Rio Tinto, one of the key players reneged. Citing corporate poverty, they have threatened to shut down the smelter, if made to participate in the clean up. So how did it come to this?

What is dross and how did it come to be in Gore?

It is the solid body of impurities that solidifies. Dross forms on the surface of metals with a low melting point by way of the metal oxidising. It should not be confused with slag, which is the glass like by product left behind after metal has been separated from its raw ore.

10,000 tonnes was dumped in a short time frame says the Mayor of Gore District by the operators of Taha Asia Pacific. It is part of 22,000 tonnes that was deposited at sites around Southland. Dross is a category 6 substance used to create phosphate fertilizer. Shortly after

What was the problem?

The 10,000 tonnes of ouvea premix is located in the old paper mill on the bank of the Mataura River in the town of Gore. Ouvea premix, when mixed with water, reacts to form gaseous ammonia. The gas fumes are lethal at 500 particles per million (ppm). Flood waters reacting with ammonia would have created gas concentrations much higher than that. The Mataura River flooded on Wednesday last week in a substantial event that partially flooded the paper mill.

What needed to be done?

Following the floods, the message from the public to Gore District Council was get rid of it now. It cannot remain in a location now demonstrably exposed to flooding, and in old, poorly maintained mill buildings where exposure to water leakage may cause lesser concentrations of gaseous ammonia to happen.

What happened?

Gore District Council, New Zealand Aluminium Smelters and another unknown party agreed in a meeting that the dross needed to be removed. N.Z.A.S. said it would put up $1.75 million to assist with the removal.

But Rio Tinto who are the majority owner of New Zealand Aluminium Smelters vetoed the decision.

What has been the reaction?

The reaction to the Rio Tinto refusal has almost uniformly been one of outrage. From the Gore District Council which naturally wants to ensure that its ratepayers and the environment are not jeopardised to the Aluminium Council, which was at the meeting and backed the removal of the dross, there has been palpable fury. From Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office and that of the Minister for the Environment and the ordinary resident in Gore there has been fury.

People – Ministers and members of the public alike – are demanding Rio Tinto come to Gore and explain their stance. Thus far no word from Rio Tinto has been received. Social media are suggesting that Rio are holding New Zealand to ransom over the dross.

Minister for the Environment, David Parker is considering legal action against Rio Tinto. The company

Who are Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto is a company that formed about 150 years ago and has turnover of about U.S.$40 billion per annum. It has a chequered record in terms of corporate responsibility despite claims to being a good corporate citizen, in that it has been accused of being complicit numerous human rights abuses and environmental negligence cases. Social activists have awarded it two Roger Awards for what they view as poor corporate conduct in New Zealand.

Are there side issues

One of the problems, which seems to be a recurring theme in New Zealand in terms of third party operators, is cowboy operators coming in, doing a dross job – for lack of a more literal description – taking the credit and disappearing. In this case Taha Asia Pacific, which had a contract with N.Z.A.S. to syphon off the dross and reprocess it to extract more aluminium for recycling at the main plant. The company’s owners were based in Bahrain. The company went into liquidation in 2016, costing 22 people their jobs.

This is where New Zealand’s regulatory system falls critically short in a number of areas.

  • The regulatory body is short on staff and resources;
  • The rate of investigation and trying of suspect cowboy operators is not flash;
  • The penalties (or lack of) and the imposition of them tell such operators that they can probably get away with it

Climate change lessons not for New Zealand students

A friend came to visit a few years ago and we went for a drive to the Waimakariri River, which was running high after heavy rain a few days earlier. When we got to the river, I thought we would go for a nature walk through a reserve on the banks of the river. I started talking to him about my interest in the river and the natural processes in it. My mate looked at me completely blank, and I asked him why. He had never done geography and by his own admission was completely ignorant of the river as a natural system.

Tonight, reading The Press whilst eating dinner, I was reminded about that conversation when I read about a climate change teaching resource for students. And I wondered how many actually understand physical geography, or have even heard of it. I then thought a bit more about the issue and came to the conclusion, that rather than teaching students about climate change, they should first know a bit about geography.

Geography is much more than just maps, which has come as a surprise to several of my non-geography minded mates. Maps are just the favoured way of displaying data temporally and spatially. It is spread across a broad range of sub topics – physical geography, human geography, political geography, to name just a few. In the case of physical geography, it can then be further divided into hydrology, climatology and geomorphology to look at physical processes affecting our water, climate and land. You can see in the Venn diagram below the interactions of processes in geography.

Source: Kansas State University

Once a student has done a bit of geography and gotten to know a bit about the planet they live on, about the human, natural, social and economic interactions that go on, they can tackle climate change. Certainly it is a subject that should not be ignored. But I am honestly not convinced that at high school level, that this should be taught. And certainly not with the doomsday tint that the subject seems to have taken on. Climate change might be one of the more potent ways in which a planet under huge and unsustainable stress from human resource consumption is showing that pain, but it is not the only symptom and nor should we treat it like that. Resource consumption in general has pushed the world into the Anthropocene, the geologic epoch whose record will show the full extent of the ecological assault taking place.

I expect that this will get some push back, particularly from students who might think people like me are part of the problem. So be it. To deal with this, one must view it as a whole, which students are not being currently encouraged to do. And which, over the course of 8 separate sessions, in class cannot be done sufficiently in depth.

Dear National Party

I understand that you are coming to the end of your first term on the Opposition benches. And that as the largest party in the House you have 56 Members, of which three have just announced their intentions to retire at the end of the 52nd New Zealand Parliament. I understand that your campaign machine is itching to get going and make this Government a one term wonder. I understand it has been a long term on the opposition benches, ruing the way M.M.P. works.

But I have honest doubts about how ready you are to win the election. Winning the election means that in three years you have somehow managed to:

  1. See that neoliberalism is a failure and the neoliberal model either needs a fundamental overhaul or to be rejected entirely
  2. Accept that compassion is a good human quality to have and that not everyone is lucky to have the necessities of life
  3. Understand that climate change or not, the rate of resource consumption around the world is destroying tracts of ecosystem at a rate that will crash humanity in the next 100 years if left unchecked
  4. Accept that certain conservative sacred cows such as harsher penalties and an unfair tax system do not work for many people any more

Except that you have not. At least not honestly. A sea change in politics, especially New Zealand politics, where some commentators think we are 15-20 years behind Europe in our thinking about society, the environment, economy and how they interact, cannot happen in three years.

Seeing you as a father, a Leader of the Opposition, on Facebook and being sure that like the very vast majority of Parliamentarians you genuinely want the best for New Zealand – albeit in a blue tinted way – you will achieve my second point. But for you and National to achieve the other three, your whole outlook is going to need to change. And after two years watching you on the Opposition benches I do not see that change, or any credible evidence it is going to happen.

It is true that Labour are fluffing around on several things, such as housing, justice and economic growth, but that is where it ends. In their time in office, they have made initial moves to address issues that I thought might have waited until the second term. Minister of Defence Ron Mark had big expenditure decisions to make for the Defence Force, and with the exception of the replacement transport aircraft for our old C-130H Hercules, he has pulled them off superbly. The move on oil and gas was always going to come, but I thought it might have waited until their second term, and it is clear that the younger generation of New Zealanders some of whom will vote for the first time this year, want action now.

I can understand that Simon will be disappointed that he is probably not going to get to be Prime Minister. It is the highest honour in New Zealand politics, and an office respected by friends, allies and nations we normally do not have much to do with, alike. But it is true that there is nothing worse than being a first term Leader of the Opposition, because, with two exceptions – ironically both involving Labour Governments – New Zealanders tend to give a first term Government the benefit of the doubt.

So, I am sorry Simon. The coveted office of Prime Minister is most likely not going to be yours when the sun rises on 20 September 2020. Labour will have done enough by the end of this term to justify a second one in office, because after all, the old saying goes

“Opposition’s do not win elections; Government’s lose them”.

Cult of personality undermining the America that the West knows

For millions of people around the world, the impeachment trial of United States President Donald Trump was a spectacle – and a rather sad one at that. It was the spectacle of a President with an almost cultish following, including yes-men in high elected positions, making a mockery of one of the most serious trials in American history. But it is not just this trial, but rather how Mr Trump has treated the office of President of the United States and what we might expect from his remaining time in office – 11 months or 4 years 11 months – that has people talking.

Following Mr Trump’s acquittal, the President was quick to take show a degree of vindictiveness that would have surprised any neutral observer when he started taking revenge on those who supported the impeachment process. Within hours, he was ending his association with officials inside and outside of the White House who had testified. First t(w)o go were Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his brother Yavgeny (who had no involvement in the trial). Also quickly removed was the United States Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, despite Republican resistance. And it is feared that others will follow suit in the coming days and weeks.

Toxic – and potentially damaging to relations with New Zealand, if people knew – was his decision to award radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mr Limbaugh, after the Christchurch terrorist attacks labelled the event a “false leftist flag” event, which in other words meant leftist interests somehow staged it.

Perhaps most damaging is the attack on the United States Constitution, which Mr Trump and all incoming elected officials have to swear to uphold. One of the most notorious is his offer to hold the G7 Summit at a Miami resort he owns, and thereby conduct personal business, whilst holding the office of President. As a Constitutional violation this is quite severe. The emoluments clauses provide for ensuring that no elected official shall accept foreign titles, presents, emoluments, offices or any other such gift from a foreign head of state or head of government. Mr Trump tried to allege that his predecessor Barak Obama did a deal with Netflix or a deal for a book whilst in office. But as Netflix is not a foreign government or representative of a foreign government, his argument falls flat.

But in terms of danger, the evolution of Mr Trumps following from being loyal supporters to that of a cult like group evokes dark echoes of the supporters of past global leaders. With a television channel (Fox), and a group of hand picked commentators telling one what to think When supporters go from saying that something their hero allegedly did “simply did not happen” is one thing. But to have said alleged incident then go to “okay it did happen, but what is it to us?” and then to “okay it happened, but we don’t care” is a clear evolution into blind following of the leader. The final stage, normally after a disaster or significantly adverse event is “okay this happened, but we didn’t know it would…”.

As this Presidency heads towards the end of its first term, many commentators will be nervously watching to see how much worse it can get. But one thing is for certain. Regardless of either its – hopefully – decisive defeat, or a victory that serves to divide America possibly for generations after Mr Trump leaves office, it is hard to see how the conduct of No. 45 is going to help America’s prestige around the world.

Making housing affordable for New Zealanders

In January 2019 it emerged that New Zealand houses were some of the least affordable in property price:income ratios. Auckland was the worst, sitting at 9:1, whilst Christchurch was 5.4:1. In other words all of ones after-tax income for nine straight years would be necessary to buy a property on a given day, never mind the fact that in those nine years, the value has most probably increased; that you have day to day living expenses.

In 2002, in Twizel in the Mackenzie Basin of the South Island, a house and the land it sits on would set you back N.Z$90,000. Now the average price in the Mackenzie District is about $543,000, pushed along by the development of new subdivisions around Twizel and the terrace overlooking Lake Ruataniwha.

For me to buy a house now, I would have had to not spent a single cent of my after-tax income since the start of 2013, and even then it would not buy me very much. Maybe 1/3 of that house in Twizel, which would still be another 12 years away from owning – in other words not able to call mine until 2032.

I propose a range of measures that I believe would help to reduce the pressure on the New Zealand housing market.

  1. Reduce migration to 25,000 per annum – in 2018 more than 97,000 people moved to New Zealand, a rate that that cannot be adequately planned for by councils, social service providers or central government
  2. Give local councils the power to acquire properties that are abandoned and whose landlord is not living in New Zealand, and have them sold at their most recent valuation – in Christchurch for example this would enable the acquisition of the Addington sale yards
  3. Introduce a cap on the number of properties an individual can own, so that the market cannot be dominated by a few wealthy individuals or consortium’s
  4. End land banking
  5. Support tiny housing for those who want small houses with minimal floor area – not everyone wants to live in an average house and some tiny homes are quite stylish

However, I do not support the deregulatory approach that would be most likely adopted by the National Party. Every time this comes up, the methods are always the same:

  • Get rid of or substantially downgrade the Resource Management Act – no argument that the Act is in need of reform, but that is not surprising when the Act doubles in length
  • Remove the urban boundary limits, especially around Auckland that open up land to endless urban sprawl – are New Zealanders really that averse to living in apartments or in downsized properties
  • Loosen controls on speculation and quick sales

Housing in New Zealand is sort of our social achilles heal. But it does not need to be that way and the faster New Zealand addresses housing, the healthier our society will become.