Methyl Bromide Protest in Picton and Blenheim

This report of the anti Methyl Bromide demonstrations in Picton and Blenheim first appeared in The Marlborough Express:

Protesters against the use of the toxic gas methyl bromide at Picton’s Shakespeare Bay urged the Marlborough District Council in a fiery exchange yesterday to suspend use of the gas and put in place a robust air plan.

The council, which owns the port, instead went ahead with its plan to delay any decision until the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) completed a national review of the controversial gas.

ERMA has indicated the review will be ready for public consultation next month, with a decision due next year.

Methyl bromide is used at ports around New Zealand as a quarantine and pre-shipment fumigant to kill pests. It is an ozone depleter and its use in New Zealand as a fumigant for soil has been phased out.

Its use at Port Marlborough has been steadily condemned and yesterday protesters took their anger to council after demonstrations in Picton and Blenheim.

About 100 protesters gathered at midday, many holding placards asking the council and Port Marlborough “merchants of death” to “stop poisoning our workers and families”.

Many of them then travelled to Blenheim to demonstrate in Seymour Square, opposite the council’s offices, for an hour before the 3pm council meeting.

About 50 protesters then attended the council meeting, where a fiery exchange took place between Marlborough Mayor Alistair Sowman and Soil and Health Association spokesman Steffan Browning.

In an address interrupted by jeers from protesters, Mr Sowman said he understood the concerns over use of the gas, but council had “no real evidence” of any danger to people from the fumigation.

The council was relying on the authority’s expertise to make a decision, he said.

In the meantime, Port Marlborough would continue its “robust monitoring” of gas levels.

Mr Browning said the council was a taking the easy option.

The mayor then tried to silence Mr Browning, who had broken meeting protocol by moving from the public seating to the councillors’ bench to speak.

Mr Sowman told him the meeting was not a chance for him to have a say.

“Do not worry about protocol,” Mr Browning said.

“Let me speak. You’re copping out … Follow Nelson’s lead, we want a moratorium [on methyl bromide fumigations].”

Stiff provisions in the Nelson City Council’s air-quality plan resulted in fumigation company Genera taking an appeal to the Environment Court, and that in turn led to much tighter controls around the use of methyl bromide at Port Nelson.

Councillor Gerald Hope successfully raised a motion that allowed five protesters a right of reply to the mayor on what he called a “highly charged and emotive issue”.
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Environmental group Guardians of the Sounds spokesman Peter Beech said the council should suspend fumigations until Marlborough had “a robust air plan” that addressed all spray drift issues.

“If they ban methyl bromide they’ll [the log fumigators] just switch to another poisonous gas in 18 months’ time … This is wider than just methyl bromide.”

He said Shakespeare Bay needed an airtight facility, similar to one at the Nelson port, that captured the gas in filters and either recycled or destroyed it, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

The council had vested interests in forestry and was putting these interests ahead of the Picton community’s health and safety, said Mr Beech.

“We have the scenario of one council governing two towns. If Blenheim’s interests override Picton’s … there is no way Picton can get adequate representation.”

Protester Jim Lutherus said he was exposed to the gas while working at Nelson’s port and now had various health problems that he believed were related to that exposure.

“This year they released 10 tonnes over us. A few years down the track the kids could be sick. It is a bloody serious thing,” he said.

Port Marlborough health and safety officer Patrick Burdon said the port’s rules on the use methyl bromide were five times stricter than most authorities’, with one part per million set as the allowable amount of methyl bromide released to air.