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Upton calls for a pollutants register

Upton calls for a pollutants register saying gaps should be filled

First published in Energy and Environment on April 25, 2019.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton has asked ministers to create a Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR) as there is a dearth of information about the impact and risks from hazardous substances.

Upton has written a letter to the Ministers for the Environment, David Parker and Eugenie Sage saying there are no standardised methods to estimate and track hazardous substances and waste released to the environment.

He says the work should begin with six substances and incrementally built up over time.

A PRTR was first developed in the US in 1987 and followed by 50 other countries and all the developed countries except for NZ

The OECD originally recommended NZ should adopt such a register in 2007 and again in 2017 in its reviews of NZ environmental performance.

“I am writing to suggest you conduct an appraisal of the merits of establishing a PRTR and consider whether the reasons that have previously been advanced not to develop one still stand up to scrutiny.”

Upton said National Environment Standards had contributed to the consistent monitoring and management of air quality and soil contamination, “however there is an absence of standardised methods employed to estimate and track hazardous substances and waste releases to the environment”.

There was no national platform collecting data on known discharges or information about the maximum allowable discharges for specific chemicals.

“The importance of this type of information became apparent recently when PFAS contamination was reported in different areas around NZ…. These events raised alarms about how little we know about the use and discharges of PFAS and the level of contamination in water bodies, land and reusable bio solids.”

The Ministry for the Environment had acknowledged the lack of understanding around PFAS use and the need for database to monitor it and assist in assessing potential risks for human and ecosystem health.

Upton said the public had a right to know what is entering the environment so they can assess risk of contamination and to hold authorities to account

MfE had been working on the Environmental Monitoring and Reporting Project and the National Environmental Reporting programme with Statistics NZ, but there is no project to address pollutant releases and transfers.

Past arguments about a register not being suitable or not worth it needed to be reconsidered.

The arguments against said; NZ’s manufacturing base was too small, the PRTR approach did not fit with NZ’s effects based legislation, NZ’s pollution risk was low, and the costs would outweigh the benefits.

Upton argued countries with similar manufacturing and pollution profiles such as Ireland had found a PRTR was useful and had increased the recovery of hazardous waste. NZ had also moved away from effects based legislation with the introduction of bottom lines in areas like water and air quality.

He also believed the costs of a PRTR would not be excessive as much of the data existed and there was international experience to build upon.

Upton suggested Ministers get officials to reassess the case for developing a PRTR using the Environmental Protection Authority’s Chemical Map and Fire and Emergency’s mapping platform as a framework.

This could be done incrementally, with Upton suggesting the work could begin with five substance types – sulphur dioxide, chlorinated solvents, arsenic, atrazine, glyphosate and neonicotinoids. There was partial information on these, but little idea about the quantum or locality of the environmental burden that is accumulating

A lesson from the environmental domain reports was a there is a dearth of high quality information which a PRTR could help fill to understand important environmental pressures and respond to them.

First published in Energy and Environment on April 25, 2019.

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