morning recently I woke up and read through my usual array of international
media. In the middle of the lead story from the Washington Post about
mercury levels in seafood, I began to feel a deep wash of shame.
The article warned women of childbearing age to limit their intake of fish from species such as white tuna. Issued by the Food and Drug Administration, the advisory was immediately criticized for understating the risks of eating fish.
The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit group of environmental investigators, said the FDA was misusing scientific data and withholding information regarding the true level of mercury in seafood. Senior vice-president Richard Wiles said the coal and seafood industries' interests beat out the health interests of America's children.
And here's where New Zealand comes in. Against vigorous opposition, the New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter recently gave the go-ahead to develop the Pike River coalfield. The minister decided that an access road through pristine forested areas, the potential for seepage, scarring and vastly reduced river flows was not enough to protect this unique area of spectacular conservation and landscape values.
But while this destruction should have been enough on its own, the issue is much broader. About 1.1 million tonnes of Pike River coal will be exported to Asia, Europe and possibly the United States each year for 15 to 18 years. The coal will be used to power steel mills, the single largest source of mercury pollution in the world.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that once in the air, falls down with rain and washes into the nearest body of water, where it is absorbed by fish, becoming increasingly toxic as it works its way up the aquatic food chain, until it ends up in concentrated levels in widely eaten deep-sea fish such as tuna and swordfish.
The poisons then accumulate in the women who eat the fish, transferring to their offspring and causing serious neurological and developmental problems.
But it's not just mercury. Burning fossil fuels turns rain acidic, leading eventually to everything from asthma to Alzheimer's and brain damage. Acid rain destroys lakes and forests and is blamed for the death of hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests across North America and Europe and the unprecedented death of fish and bird species that eat the toxic fish and insects.
No doubt New Zealand Oil and Gas, the majority owners of the Pike River mine, will argue that, as a good corporate citizen, it adheres to all government standards in the countries they export to. And maybe it does.
But does that absolve it from responsibility when it knows that in the US the Bush Administration's approach to pollution is tailored to the continued use of coal with incentives to keep filthy plants operating - without having to install more pollution controls - and that coal-burning power stations have just been excused from complying with the Clean Air Act?
And that a United Nations Environment Programme report says coal-fired power stations now account for 70 per cent of new, quantified man-made mercury emissions to the atmosphere, with the lion's share coming from, virtually unregulated, Asia.
Here's the odd thing. As individuals we're encouraged to think global but act local. But for corporations, where all enterprise is equal and weighed only in terms of economic outcomes, the maxim becomes act global, think local. In other words, when outcomes such as environmental destruction emerge, globalization switches seamlessly to localization, the problem left neatly behind in someone else's filthy Asian or American backyard.
But perhaps I'm being a little harsh. After all New Zealand Oil and Gas is simply going about the legitimate business of increasing shareholder value. In our society that's considered a noble enterprise and it would be naive to expect the company to be less environmentally blind than any other in the extractive industry.
That's where the Minister of Conservation comes in. As an elected official it is his role to offer up a social counterweight to the rapacious demand of a dinosaur industry denuded of responsibility for the common good. It is his responsibility to look past the local situation to the international picture of New Zealand's role in preserving the planet.
This minister has made a mockery of the Department of Conservation and his trusted role in it. If the minister, the elected representative of the people of this country, won't come down on the side of common good, who will?
Certainly not us ordinary folks. After all, when did any of us last attend a protest meeting, send a submission to Parliament or call a local MP to voice concern over an environmental issue? And I wonder how many of us are preparing to buy shares in Pike River when it lists on the stock market.
Shame on you, Chris Carter, for your decision. You may hide behind your Government mandate, but by playing your hand this way you are feeding climate change, with all its concomitant effects - from mass species extinction and ecosystem breakdown to worldwide human suffering.
And shame on us for allowing you to do it.
To email Chris Carter: email@example.com
To email Gordon Ward, finance and general manager for NZ Oil & Gas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: email@example.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: www.sumnerburstyn.com/. © 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn