Image for The Smoking Gun (2)

HEY, MR JONES…

In the north of the state, smoke gets into our skies from a number of sources.  I have been observing this and keeping my own photographic record for some years now. 

It comes from:

-public forestry burns
-private forestry burns
-Parks and Wildlife burns
-on-farm burns
-residential backyard burns
-residential woodheater burns

We experience this smoke at both the macro and micro level.  It might be coming out of a neighbour’s chimney, just metres away, for heating, for cooking, for ambience, or from a bit of opportunistic rubbish burning, upwind and perhaps just a block away. 

Habits die hard. 

Stubble burns, fenceline burns, tree stump burns, tidying up burns.  Fuel reduction burns, windrow burns, regeneration burns…  They all play a part. 

In Launceston and at its residential-rural interfaces, in a small country town like Lilydale or in the surrounding bush and farm areas, smoke is regular. 

It is monitored-measured for example in the cases of Launceston and Lilydale, at ‘BLANKET’ stations at Ti Tree Bend (3 or so kilometres from the town centre) and on the Lilydale/Golconda Road, beyond the town proper. 

On numerous occasions I have observed smoke concentrations above these ‘built-up’ areas, while at the BLANKET stations, the air has seemed less polluted. 

To an extent, it seems that localised emissions, such as woodstoves and heaters are involved in these instances, though in the case of Launceston (including Waverley, Invermay and Mowbray) local industry can also be seen to be contributing.  And beyond these places, with houses tucked here and there, through the north and north-east there are the many micro-climates.  Places like Underwood, Lalla and so on.  The valleys can and do hold smoke – quite beastly careless of monitoring stations beyond the next mountain or line of hills.

I have also noticed/observed that along the Tamar, extending well past Tamar Island, (i.e. as far as the eye can see) that the smoke from planned burns, be they forestry or Parks, ‘coincides’ with a general build up of smoke haze along the estuary – over days and weeks.  I haven’t been able to point to woodheaters to account for this.

Who does it all hurt?  The answer is that it hurts many people.  As the EPA notes, “Emissions from woodheaters, planned burning, cars and industry all affect the air we breathe and the health of our community.” and “A number of health studies carried out both in Australia and overseas have clearly shown there is no ‘safe’ level of exposure to wood smoke.  Any increase in particle levels a given population is exposed to will result in increases in, for example, hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses.

“Those most at risk include people with respiratory conditions, the very young, and the elderly, but other people in the wider population can also experience medical problems.

“The fine particles found in wood smoke are very difficult to remove from the air. During widespread smoke events it is very difficult for susceptible people to avoid exposure. Standard air conditioning equipment is not able to prevent the small smoke particles from entering domestic buildings.”

When we put the then Environment Minister, Michelle O’Byrne on trial in the TT ‘Court of Public Opinion’ ( HERE ), we heard evidence from a number of people, some of whom described just what it was like to have a respiratory disease such as asthma and to be exposed to the smoke from controlled burns. 

It was truly shocking, the pain and suffering that such smoke induces.  We also heard how such exposure triggered in some cases, chronic asthma – which had not previously existed.  Our witnesses were locals and visitors.  I recall one whose husband’s respiratory condition worsened while in the Tamar, and ameliorated when on holiday on the mainland. 

Solution? 

They sold up and moved to the big isle. 

This should not have to happen.  We each of us have a right to clean air.  But how do we get it?

Our EPA conforms to a national standard for PM 10 levels of 50 µg m-3 and an advisory level for PM2.5 of 25 µg m-3.  An exceedence of the standard/advisory level occurs when average levels are above these amounts for a 24 hour period.  It is the 24 hour period which is measured – not just the smoke that you woke to, which cleared by mid morning, or the smoke that blanketed our Tamar in the late afternoon. 

For those with respiratory conditions, exposure to smoke can trigger immediate trauma – and yet air quality exceedences have to occur over 24 hours before they are recorded.

It seems as if there is really nothing much one can do to remove the smoke threat from our lives.  The EPA tells us that “Effectively lodging a complaint and reporting an incident involves knowing which Agency is responsible for dealing with particular matters.”  Too true!  How often do we know exactly who lit a fire that comes from somewhere over the hills or that lies in the valleys and the like? 

And guess what? 

For F/forestry controlled burns, the EPA will not investigate smoke pollution complaints. 

There exists a MOU in which Forestry gets to investigate complaints relating to its own actions.  In practice it is very difficult to be able to do anything about poor air quality.  It took a lot of effort before we were even able to get the government to admit (last year was it?) that yes, the Minister for the Environment was indeed the person responsible for smoke pollution, rather than the Minister for Forests.

Here’s a case in point:

Exactly 6 months ago to this very day, on the morning of March 17th, Launceston and the north-east was covered in smoke. 

Warren Jones, EPA Director, immediately pointed to burn-offs in Victoria as the source of the smoke.  He did this in the media and also on the EPA website.  A number of complaints were made to the EPA about the smoke. 

Supposed satellite imagery supporting Jones’s version did not actually show anything of the sort and a number of TT correspondents put their own accounts on TT.  Finally TT published an image showing a cloud of smoke trailing from the Mole Creek region as far as Fingal, if I recall correctly.  (see ‘The Smoking Gun’ and other TT articles: HERE ). 

All this material was forwarded to the EPA. 

What is the result?  Six months later?

There is no result.  There is no report:  ‘The matter is being progressed’.  ‘The Officer is on leave’.  ‘The draft is nearly done’.  ‘Should be soon’. 

Again. 

And again.

The state bureaucracy is sometimes quite disappointing.  For example, you can read on the EPA website that “Backyard burning on allotments of less than 2000 square metres is also prohibited”.  But this is not true.  In the case of Launceston municipality (which includes Lilydale), it is not true because the govt regulations ( HERE ) allow burning if in accordance with local govt by-laws which in the case of Launceston Municipality allows the burning of fires “...in the course of ordinary farming and forestry …  or otherwise for the protection of life, property or to reduce potential fire hazards … or … camp fires and similar fires for cooking food, for heating liquids or warming human beings”. (Prevention of Outdoor Burning By-Law HERE)

Oh yes … sorry, almost forgot … what about those areas 2000 square metres or greater - if you live in Greater Launceston?  Come on … guess …

And while you’re guessing, please don’t forget next time that you pull out the box of matches that:  “Any increase in particle levels a given population is exposed to will result in increases in, for example, hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses.”

This article was for those that suffer at the hands of the incendiarists.  It was against the apologists, the hacks and the aggressively anonymous.  It was first submitted to TT on the occasion of the end of 6 months following the Mar 17 smokeout, and resubmitted four days after, on Tue 21 Sept.  - Garry Stannus.