National climate emergency? Not at this rate.


On Thursday Environment Canterbury declared a Climate Change Emergency. Just hours later on the same day, Nelson City Council followed suit. Widespread applause followed.

On the surface, the councillors gathered around respective tables in Nelson and Christchurch can say that they have done something positive for the climate, but on the other hand, despite being able to make an educated guess as to what it means, I wonder if anyone has a clue what it would mean on paper.

Granted Minister for Climate Change, James Shaw says it has no legal standing, the time for words is passed.

I am concerned though that all it will end up being is another layer of symbolism on top of a wad of earlier actions that were symbolic but lacking in substance. Under Prime Minister Helen Clark there was a move to reduce exhaust fumes, without really understanding that most exhaust fumes are invisible and that in effect the measure being introduced was just window dressing. For real progress on vehicle emissions there would had to have been steps taken to address the state of the New Zealand car market or a maximum age a car could become before it is permanently removed from the roads.

As mentioned in earlier columns there are a host of steps that New Zealand could be taking right now which we appear reluctant to do so. For example an energy audit done by the Green Party done a decade ago found that New Zealand could reduce its household energy use on average by 10-15%. If that were coupled with more recent ideas such recycling all aluminium, which would significantly reduce reliance on electricity from Manapouri power station.

For all of successive governments talking about having a strong knowledge based economy, even 20 years since the then Labour Deputy Leader Dr Michael Cullen promised a “knowledge economy”, New Zealanders still seem rather averse to higher levels of investment by both the public and private sector in science, technology and research. Compared to the O.C.E.D. average of 2.4% in 2017, New Zealand spent about 1.3% of its G.D.P. on science. These results may be linked to a general lack of investment in schools in science and mathematics – my two bogeyman subjects at high school, but ultimately two very important ones that everyone needs to know a bit about. Labour has committed to increasing the percentage of G.D.P. spent to 2.0%, but how this will be spent and and on what, remains to be seen.

Following on from this, it needs to be noted that a report has come out suggesting that cutting back the methane from farm animals is not on its own, despite being the largest portion of New Zealand’s green house gases, going to significantly reduce the impact of emissions. Which raises a quandary, because New Zealand’s climate change focus has been on this and will now have to be reviewed just as the Government starts to look at ways of ramping up its response. Does that mean we have the science all wrong?

What we need in terms of climate planning is a clear set of objectives that we are to achieve. For that we need policies that give effect to those objectives and rules to enforce the policies. But we also need to be realistic about the potential change of pace – on one hand we need to move reasonably quickly because the window is closing on how long the world has before some of the natural changes become irreversible. On the other hand, simply going in and laying down a whole wad of rules without thinking about who will be affected by them and how, is a sure fire recipe for trouble.

So, in summary, it is all very well for Canterbury and Nelson to declare a climate emergency, but unless there is a clear idea of what it is meant to achieve, how and when, it is really just another layer of symbolism.

 

Rejection of application to assess Franz Josef shows lack of understanding


The Minister for Regional Development Shane Jones has rejected an application to assess the suitability of Franz Josef for relocation. The rejection of the application, which came in the wake of destructive floods in March and growing concerns about its safety in an Alpine Fault earthquake, indicates a lack of understanding about the dangers posed to the popular West Coast township.

My main concern is that this will unnecessarily increase the risk to residents and visitors to the township. All residents and visitors have a right to be safe in the township during an emergency event, that structures and natural features have been subject to an E.I.M. assessment and matching appropriate steps have been taken:

  • E is ELIMINATE – ELIMINATE the hazard, whether it securing the parapets, chimneys of buildings to make sure they do not collapse onto the street or into adjacent buildigns
  • I is ISOLATE – ISOLATE is what gets done when a hazard cannot be eliminated, requires the separation of the hazardous feature and possibly a buffer zone around it to contain it if still dangerous
  • M is MINIMISE – MINIMISE the hazard if it cannot be ELIMINATED or ISOLATED, by diverting, removing or stopping all non essential functions/features/activities in the vicinity of the hazard

We cannot ELIMINATE the Alpine Fault and the Waiho River. We cannot ISOLATE their reach in Franz Josef’s current location. MINIMISING the risk by relocation off the probable area of the fault scarp and the active Waiho River bed is the best way of reducing the likely damage. The town would be immediately and violently subject to any Alpine Fault earthquake with massive disruption of power, water and sewerage, road and telecommunication links. A fault scarp possibly 2-5 metres high would rupture right through the township with 8 metres or more lateral displacement. The only thing therefore to do is either move all of the non-essential infrastructure of the township away from its current location and establish somewhere else or move the whole town. Neither option is going to be cheap and will probably result in having to buy up land somewhere.

One has to accept that there will still be considerable damage in Franz Josef even if it does get moved. However infrastructure will be far more quickly repaired. It will be spared the likely landslide dam burst emergency that would occur in the Callery River catchment immediately upstream of the Waiho River bridge. And most importantly it would be spared the massive ground damage that would be caused by the surface rupture and which alone would take months to begin to repair – if at all.

The ugly reality facing Franz Josef


Franz Josef is a picturesque town in Westland District. It is nestled against the lower flank of the Southern Alps, with the Waiho River immediately to the south of the township. The town and the nearby Franz Josef Glacier are named after the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, by explorer and geologist Julius von Haast.

But for all of its mighty charm nestled in temperate rainforest, Franz Josef is caught between a rock and a hard place. In terms of geological and geomorphological hazards it is in a location that in the long term, and increasingly likely in the short term, untenable. This article takes a look at the danger facing Franz Josef.

Why?

New Zealand straddles the boundary of two tectonic plates. To the west is the Indo-Australian Plate and to the east is the Pacific Plate. The onshore boundary is denoted by the Alpine Fault, a large fault line with a repose period of 300-350 years and a tendency to only move in magnitude 8.0+ earthquakes. The last one was about 1717AD.This onshore boundary is where about 25-30mm of tectonic uplift occur per annum as well as a similar amount of erosion, which means there is a continuous supply of sediment waiting to enter the catchments of the West Coast and east coast rivers.

This relentless uplift creates a lovely mountain range with steep hydrology – from the summit of Mt Cook to the Tasman Sea is about 45 kilometres. Being in the prevailing westerly belt of winds that sailors call the “Roaring Forties” because of the latitude, moist westerly air comes off the Tasman Sea and empties its moisture content – often over 200 millimetres and up to 500 millimetres in a day – on the West Coast side. Unsurprisingly flooding becomes a major problem.

How does this affect Franz Josef?

Immediately after one crosses the Waiho River heading south, the road takes a hard right turn. In the corner is a hotel that sits behind a substantial stop bank. On the other side of that stop bank is a riverbed that is rising at a rate of about 300mm each year. The rise is because a large volume of sediment is continually entering the Waiho catchment. This poses an increasing flood risk on a river where water levels start responding to heavy rain in less than an hour.

Franz Josef straddles the Alpine Fault, which runs right through the middle of the township. It crosses the Waiho River in the immediate vicinity of the Milton Hotel, which was flooded and suffered severe damage in a 2016 outbreak. Westland District Council published Plan Change 7 (P.C.7), which was meant to identify a zone through central Franz Josef, where there is high confidence of the Alpine Fault’s exact location, with a view to moving essential services and businesses out of the zone. However after considerable public opposition, P.C.7 was scrapped.

When?

Time is running out. The stop bank is about as tall as it can realistically get without massive supporting earth works. When the river tops it, it will start eroding away the stop bank and try to reclaim the riverbed that the stop bank was originally built over. This may claim several farms when it happens.

But there is a bigger problem. The Alpine Fault is now due for another earthquake. Should it rupture whilst Franz Josef is in its current location, the town will be subject to immediate and unmistakably violent shaking lasting up to 3 minutes. There will be between 8-10 metres lateral displacement to the right and up to 3 metres vertical displacement. Only the newest structures would probably be still standing.

Before then though, there may be another rain storm of similar magnitude to the one that occurred between 25-27 March. Should that happen, similar damage to what happened as a result of that storm should be expected. This has a high probability of including the bridge over the Waiho River, which was destroyed on Tuesday 26 March. The next rain fall event might not even need to be that big.

What is the solution?

In the absence of P.C. 7 existing, one option is to give up on the stop bank and let the Waiho River reclaim the riverbed. The problem here is that several farms and the air field would have to move. It also does not address the long term problem of the Alpine Fault. Perhaps the most feasible option is progressively relocate Franz Josef township’s population and amenities to neighbouring towns. Westland District Council and West Coast Regional Council have a duty of care to the residents and the tourists and other visitors to their District/Region to make sure that they are in no undue danger.

Where could the people go?

There are several nearby townships where the people of Franz Josef could be moved to. Ross and Whataroa are two, though these are quite near the Alpine Fault. Harihari is a third. All are on the same road, State Highway 6, as Franz Josef. It would be likely that West Coast Regional Council and Westland District Council would need to prepare a joint request for Government assistance purchasing land and working out appropriate resource management issues.

For their part the Government would most likely need to provide assistance. The West Coast is economically one of the poorer parts of New Zealand. It has a small rate payer base and this has a good chance, even if well planned and executed, of blowing whatever budget is set. And if the plan went ahead, it might have to be applied to Fox Glacier as well, as it too is very near the Alpine Fault.

 

 

The devils energy: Nuclear power in New Zealand


Today in the Sunday Star Times I saw that columnist Damien Grant was suggesting that if New Zealand is serious about climate change, then we examine nuclear power again.

Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s it looked like nuclear power might have a future in New Zealand. This however was before concerns about their impact on the environment became known – the emergencies at 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima were all a decade or more away at this point.

Let us be honest here. Building a nuclear power plant faces huge technical, legal and environmental challenges to overcome. And even if they are overcome, the nuclear free reputation of New Zealand would be brought into question, the reputation that earned New Zealand a lot of respect in the 1980’s and 1990’s especially among small Pacific Island nations. These challenges are all going be examined in this article.

First, the political backlash from the left/centre-left would be ferocious. This is possibly worse than building another coal fired power station. There would be guaranteed protests on the streets, in any harbour any ship trying to bring fuel material into and along transportation corridors. Even the centre right are not hot on the idea. Only A.C.T. Leader David Seymour is remotely interested.

Second, the Resource Management Act has no specific provisions dealing with nuclear power, the potential environmental hazards of a spillage or leak of radioactive material – whether it is spent fuel or new fuel. A search of the words “nuclear” and “uranium” in the Act in the Government’s legislation website did not yield any results. “Radioactive” yielded results in Section 15C of the Act. Right here we have a major challenge. It is expressly prohibited to store, dump any radioactive material in the coastal marine area. A nuclear power station needs a significant cooling water supply for the reactors, which means unless a river of sufficient discharge is nearby, it would have to be built on the coast and thus breach the above provision of the Act.

Third, nuclear power stations are very resource intensive. To build one in New Zealand we would need:

  1. A supply of uranium ore – that would have to come from Australia, as we do not have any uranium deposit in New Zealand large enough or accessible to use
  2. We would need a reactor designed to New Zealand building code, a tough ask for a seismically active area and would have to most probably come from the U.S.A. or Japan
  3. The transportation of radioactive material would pose a challenge – whether by truck or by train, there would be security and spill risks that might not meet the mitigatory requirements of the R.M.A.
  4. An enrichment facility here or overseas would be needed

Fourth, the cost of such a venture is going to be high. My estimate would be N.Z.$2 billion, which could easily fund research into developing a tidal power station or a waste to energy plant. All expertise, most construction material, the design and construction of the reactor would have to come in from overseas. Putting together a consortium to manage this would be a politically charged process and would be fraught with as many delays as protestors and activists could get away with.

Fifth, the shutdown phase is time and money consuming. One cannot simply turn off a nuclear reactor and walk away from it in the same way that a hydroelectric power station can be taken off line. The cleaning up of the facility, and the dismantling can take over a decade even if there is no accident.

Finally, New Zealand is simply too seismically active. The entire South Island can be ruled out point blank, as well as all of the North Island as far north as Waikato. Large tracts of the east coast of both islands are at high risk from inundation in a tsunami, particularly if the Hikurangi Trench ruptures, which is expected to happen possibly in my life time and would generate a magnitude 8.5-8.8 earthquake and significant tsunami.

The only place thought to be viable was in Northland, on the Kaipara Harbour coast. Whilst Northland might be the least seismically active part of New Zealand, there are a host of other significant challenges that would go with having a nuclear power station in that province. I expect that Ngapuhi would have huge cross party support resisting something that would potentially threaten their ancestral lands. Land owners would be militant and even if the prospect of a jobs bonanza was there, the environmental and social costs would wipe out any gains.

Just by coincidence – I didn’t realize until I had finished typing the article – this will publish on the 8th anniversary of the Japan earthquake 2011, which caused the Fukushima disaster. Lest we forget.

Early rumblings in 2019 local government elections


The first rumbles of the 2019 local government elections are starting to reverberate through the political landscape of New Zealand local government. Although the main campaign period is some months away, it has not stopped several notable local politicians from announcing they are standing Mayor.

In Auckland, former Labour Member of Parliament John Tamihere has announced his intention to stand against incumbent Mayor of Auckland and one time Minister of Justice, Phil Goff. Mr Tamihere proposes to open up the council finances to Aucklanders so that they are able to better see where their rate payer dollars are going.

Further south in Christchurch, incumbent Mayor Lianne Dalziel has announced that she will stand for a third term in office. Ms Dalziel secured the mayoralty in 2013 after much of the Christchurch City Council was voted out following a controversy – and disaster ridden – second term by the then Mayor Bob Parker. During her tenure, Councillor Raf Manji has rebalanced the council books which showed serious flaws, including considerably under-estimating the value of Christchurch’s assets when filing a claim with the insurance companies over earthquake damage.

Also possibly standing for Mayor is Councillor Jamie Gough, linked to businessman Anthony Gough who was one of the major private players in the dividing up of C.B.D. land. Mr Gough’s decision to announce a possible stand was in part informed by the growth of council projects that amount to unnecessary expenditure, but also a need to rein in rates.

However, since then, a tendency by the council to embark on projects that do have necessarily have sufficient or appropriate rate payer support, has resulted in much criticism being laid. They include a current plan to redesign Riccarton Road to have a traffic island with green space down the middle, unnecessary arts installations around the city including random steel sculptures set in the middle of the Avon River. Also planned is what I call an arty farty design around the perimeter of Cathedral Square which in my opinion do nothing for it.

Worryingly for some districts where the population base is quite tiny, a person can stand for council and get in simply because in their ward there might not be anyone else standing. Such a situation to me suggests two things:

  1. Local Government politics are simply not worth most peoples time
  2. Perhaps these small districts whose population base in some cases is only a few thousand should be looking at being dissolved into their neighbouring districts

In other councils such as Westland District Council, which has been rocked by scandal, rate payers will be looking forward to enacting a change of guard. The W.D.C., which in 2016 was made to admit that it had hired a company that bakes cakes to do work on a waste treatment plant in Franz Josef, that due hiring processes had not been followed. All of this which resulted in multiple high profile departures

Watch this space as we move further into 2019 and other potential candidates put their hands up to be a on a local board, council or even mayor.