Optimism remains in Tokoroa despite ongoing battle to improve air quality

The town's high rate of emissions is largely due to households using wood burners to heat their homes.
The town's high rate of emissions is largely due to households using wood burners to heat their homes. Photo credit: Getty

Despite air pollution remaining a problem in Tokoroa, the South Waikato District Council remains optimistic a holistic approach to fixing the issue is paying off.

Since 2005, air monitoring has shown that toxic PM10 emissions in the town regularly exceed the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality (NESAQ).

PM10 emissions are small particles in the air that if breathed in can cause serious health issues such as asthma, bronchitis, high blood pressure and heart attacks. 

The town's high rate of emissions is largely due to households using wood burners to heat their homes, particularly if they are burning wet wood, Kiri Diamond, strategy and engagement manager at South Waikato District Council, told Newshub.

In order to improve air quality and at the same time create warmer, healthier homes, Diamond says for more than a decade the council has focused on insulating homes and retrofitting houses with clean heat alternatives.

Now, around 1000 homes have received clean heat retrofits and almost 800 houses have been insulated. 

Diamond says although it's slow-going - the initial goal was to have no more than one exceedance by 2020, something which has not been achieved - she is confident the situation is getting better.

"We're helping our community change, which is really good, and we have seen a reduction in the measurements that have been received."

Diamond says through the Warm Homes Clean Air (WHCA) programme - initiated by the South Waikato District Council and the Waikato Regional Council - residents in Tokoroa can get help paying for 50 percent of the costs of putting clean heat alternatives in their homes, upto $2000 worth.

"People are becoming more aware of it and [for] the need to clean up the health of kids, because we have high respiratory problems here," she says.

In order to be eligible for the programme, residents need to be taking out a fireplace from their home and replacing it with clean heat.

Although the council budgets for $170,000 a year to cover the programme's costs, Diamond says there has yet to be enough demand in one year for all that to be spent, hence the push to raise awareness that the programme exists.

"We're really trying to just get people to know that this is available, [and saying] take the opportunity while you can."

She says a holistic approach is at the core of the programme, adding: "we try and keep it local".

Not only does the council employ local contractors to install the new heating systems, but it also works with wood suppliers in the area to make sure they supply dry wood to the houses that still use wood burners and also educate people about how to keep their wood dry when storing it.

"We're really trying to look holistically - how can we make it easier, healthier, cheaper for our community to live. And it really is a collective effort with all these private businesses, the social sector, central government and local government, and that includes regional council as well."

So far the South Waikato Regional Council has contributed more than $2 million in funding towards the programme, with support also coming from the Waikato Regional Council.

And though PM10 levels have been gradually decreasing as a result of the town's efforts, the failure to achieve the 2020 goal means more still needs to be done.  

And proposed changes to NESAQ could make it even tougher for Tokoroa to meet air quality standards.

Despite the challenges, Diamond says the town is committed to improving air quality while creating warmer and healthier homes for its residents.

"We have a high deprivation community so we're always trying to find what's the best way that we can help our community save money but still get what they need to stay healthy."