13 May 2018

Use of 'extremely toxic' fumigant avoidable - inventor

3:36 pm on 13 May 2018

A United States-based chemical engineer has rubbished claims that no safe alternative exists for fumigating export timber and logs.

There have been four forestry deaths this year.

A logging truck (file photo). Photo: 123RF

New Zealand's Environmental Protection Authority has recently allowed the industry to apply to have a critical deadline extended on the use of methyl bromide.

The Authority said eight years ago that users would need to have new technology in place by 2020 to collect and store the used gas after fumigation, preventing its spread into the atmosphere.

Methyl Bromide is described by the EPA as an "extremely toxic and ozone-depleting substance" and is banned except for use on logs and timber products for export, as part of quarantine requirements.

The group representing logging and timber exporters, and which has been trying to find an alternative, has convinced the authority it cannot meet that deadline.

Stakeholders in Methyl Bromide Reduction chair Don Hammond said that when the 2010 decision was made there was an expectation that technology would have been created by now to recapture methyl bromide and, most importantly, destroy the used material.

But chemical engineer Peter Joyce said he had created an alternative fumigation system for which he held patents in Australia and New Zealand.

He said New Zealand, Australia and the United States remained big users of methyl bromide - particularly New Zealand for its log exports.

The EPA's decision, released in late April, noted that New Zealand's use of the fumigant had increased from more than 400 tonnes a year in 2010 to more than 600 tonnes in 2016.

Mr Joyce told RNZ that two commercial facilities he designed to capture and destroy the methyl bromide after use in fumigation had been up and running in the US for the past five years. He said the systems were used on export of broccoli to Taiwan from California, and imports of grapes and blueberries into the Port of Miami.

"My systems have scrubbed over 100,000 pounds [45,000kg] of methyl bromide covering more than 1500 fumigations."

He said two independent "source tests" that measured the methyl bromide entering and leaving the system were sanctioned by the State of California.

Mr Joyce said the equipment was able to be built to suit the scale of that required to fumigate logs.

Mr Hammond said logging ships were typically fumigated at sea once they left port, except for those logs on top of the ship which were fumigated under tarpaulins while in port.

North Port (Whangarei), Tauranga and Napier still allowed methyl bromide fumigation in port, he said.

The tarpaulins are able to contain most of the methyl bromide, but some methyl bromide was vented into the atmosphere when the tarpaulins were removed. Mr Hammond said.

Mr Joyce said that on average, his system would raise the wholesale price of logs between three and six percent, but the cost of doing nothing was greater. He said politicians had done little to find an answer.

"We have determined as a society that we don't want to throw pollutants into our rivers and streams and into our air. That's really what the Montreal Protocol was set up to do, yet somehow these politicians are able to just whistle past the graveyard and not engage in trying to solve this problem."

Mr Joyce said he submitted his idea, still in development, to the EPA hearing in 2010.

"I didn't have any commercial facilities up and running but I was building them at that time, and I told them that."

He said there was initial interest, no nobody followed up.

The industry in New Zealand said it maintained a goal of wanting to reduce methyl bromide use and improve environmental targets, and was still looking for a viable alternative.

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