28 Nov 2018

Taranaki farmers concerned over safety exclusion zones

10:53 am on 28 November 2018

Taranaki farmers say they will be collateral damage if a recommendation that safety exclusion zones be enforced around oil and gas installations is taken up.

South Taranaki couple Philip and Ainsley Luscombe say almost half of their 200 hectare farm will fall into buffer zones.

Philip and Ainsley Luscombe's farm is surrounded by oil and gas infrastructure. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

An interim Environment Court decision calls for the zones, to prevent people being killed in the event of an explosion.

Safety zones, or setbacks, were included in the draft South Taranaki district plan at the industry's behest, but then withdrawn.

Industry watchdog Taranaki Energy Watch appealed that decision to the Environment Court.

During the process the council and industry agreed that buffer zones were required.

The court has indicated that setbacks of 250m were needed around well-heads and even more around installations.

Kapuni farmer Ainsley Luscombe - whose property is surrounded by oil and gas infrastructure - said it would have a huge impact.

"I mean at 300m there's whole parts of our farm that we couldn't build houses on. And we have the issue with our farm workers that if the farm workers' houses are within that space then under OSH [occupational safety and health] regulations, how can we require them to live there?"

Mrs Luscombe said she was happy to see a more scientific approach taken to safety, but not to lose the use of farmland.

"If they can't keep people safe within their own boundaries then they need to extend their boundaries to ensure that's happening. It's not our role as their neighbour to provide their safety or buffer zone.

"I would like the court to direct the oil companies to that if they require that area to contain their affects, they actually purchase that area. I don't think that is unreasonable. I mean if your neighbour in town can't just throw their rubbish over the fence and it become your problem can they?"

Mrs Luscombe said when the first well was put in on their property they were told four acres were required and that if they didn't sell it would be taken under the Public Works Act.

There was little discussion about the health and safety impacts, she said.

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Sarah Roberts said the public had not been made fully aware of the risks. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Energy Watch spokesperson Sarah Roberts said it had always insisted buffer zones were required.

"There's a lot of New Zealand examples and overseas examples of fatality risks for these types of industries and so they've agreed there are fatality contours you can draw these oil and gas sites that show that it is not advised that you are living in those areas."

The setbacks would be worked out using a calculation that took account of the likely affect of a catastrophic event and the likelihood of that event ever occurring.

Ms Roberts said the public had not been made fully aware of the risks.

"The companies haven't made their neighbours aware of the risks of this industry. Our understanding from the process is that the companies always understood this risk but it was just not communicated to the public and the councils didn't expect it to come through in the plans and we're just making sure that it is."

The oil and gas lobby group Pepanz said it was still working through the decision but was happy that setbacks from installations would be worked out on a case-by-case basis.

The decision recommends new installations contain their risk profile within their boundaries and additions to existing plant would have to do the same.

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Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

South Taranaki District Council planning manager Blair Sutherland said it was not yet clear how the decision will effect neighbours of existing installations.

"For those people I don't really think anything has changed of what their situation is and at this stage we don't know what the controls will be for future activity so my message to them is keep on watching.

"We don't know yet what those setbacks will be or what controls will apply to them but there is at the very least likely to be a consent process."

That was cold comfort to Neil Schuler whose concrete products business is nestled between two well-heads on Palmer Road.

He said his family had been on the land for four generations long before the wells went in in the 1960s.

"If they're going to impose 250m setbacks from the well-head we can't do anything. So every time we want to fix a bathroom or put a new toilet in we'll have to get apply for resource consent.

"Where does it leave us, you know. Nobody's going to buy our land. Who's going to buy our house and workshop, if we wanted to sell our business? Who's gonna buy that?"

The Environment Court also wanted the Taranaki Regional Council to provide it with data so it could better decide if air-quality near oil and gas installations was a risk to human health.

All three Taranaki district councils will be bound by the full decision which is expected next year.