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Going to Launceston? Just don’t breathe too deep

CAUGHT BETWEEN rapacious extractive industry on one hand and the sublime beauty of nature on the other, Tasmania remains a paradox in the Australian political landscape. Now, there’s something else to add to the offshore contradiction that is this southern island state—Launceston’s air.

Launceston is a small city of around 70,000 that spills north and south beyond the banks of the Tamar River, a wide, sluggish, grey stream where it flows by the city. Despite this description, it is something of a grand river that the city probably doesn’t take full advantage of when it comes to tourism – say, as Brisbane does.

The city of Launceston - nice view, pity about the winter air
The city of Launceston – nice view, pity about the winter air

It is one of those towns where you can live comfortably providing you know people who will introduce you to their social networks. Once an industrial city, the days of the woollen mills are long gone and, for decades now, Launceston has existed in a kind of economic limbo, bouyed by summer tourism and the activities of its inhabitants. It’s a small city, pleasant in the way that such low-key places are, down there on the edge of the known world. Far across Bass Strait and, for most Australians, far from their awareness, it is as a friend on mine once said as the aircraft touched down on Launceston airpstrip – “Oh, it’s like Armidale”.

Hills? No, health hazard

Yet, it’s the hills that make Launceston different to Armidale. To the east they rise in rounded ridges and, if the air is clear and your vantage point high enough, you just might see the high, jagged crags of Ben Lomond over on the horizon. Immediately westward of the city are the steep slopes of West Launceston, once the site of apple and pear orchards, now the site of housing all the way to their top. And it’s those hills, with their olive green forests and craggy outcrops, that form a heath hazard for the residents of this place. Health hazard? Yes. In winter.

What happens is this. The layer of air at ground level over the city heats during the day, warmed by the city’s activity and from heat radiation coming off the sun-warmed ground (yes, you skeptical cynics reading this, Launceston does get sun, and all year round). As winter’s cold, denser air settles over the city it traps that warm air below, effectively sealing it in. This is known to meteorologists as a temperature inversion, much the same thing that happens in Sydney where it occasionally creates that brown haze of polluted air.

The difference to Sydney, however, is the popularity of wood heaters and fireplaces that Launceston’s inhabitants light up in an attempt to keep warm. The emissions from these rise into that layer of warm, lower air – and stay there while the colder air cap persists. Thus, Launceston, a modest, small city, has a big air pollution problem and, sometimes, some of the dirtiest air you could breathe anywhere in the country.

It has become so bad these past few days that the government has warned residents not to do strenuous exercise outside lest they breathe in too much of the stuff. In the worst recorded air quality levels since 2007, contamination reached 100 micrograms of small particles per cubic metre when the normal Launceston winter daytime average is around 25 micrograms. According to the Bureau of Meterology, a mix of low temperature with little wind allows particles from wood heaters to settle in the Tamar Valley and create a smog layer.

Wood – warming, sure… but not so healthy

This raises the wisdom of burning wood to stay warm. Well-ventilated locales might not be bothered by this, but large cities can be. The use of fireplaces and wood combustion stoves in Sydney is very much discouraged by the state government and those that are on sale – and they are hard to find – must comply with emission standards.

This raises the need for technological solutions to better ways to burn wood. Wood, after all, is a natural, renewable resource the supply of which could be made sustainable were plantations of appropriate timbers established. Then, a small industry, with the employment it could create, might be established and persist well into the future.

There already are slow combustion stoves reputed to be low-emission-producing, however if Launceston is to reduce its problem of bad air in winter (and the attendant health costs around respiratory disorders) then the replacement of open fireplaces and inefficient wood burning stoves with newer, efficient types may need state government intervention. A subsidy, perhaps – replace your old, inefficient heater with a new, clean and efficient model and get cash in hand for doing so. It’s really no different than mainland (that’s what Tasmanians call Australia) government subsidising the installation of solar water heaters, rainwater tanks and photovoltaic panels on roofs.

Of course, removing inefficient models from the market place would have to be a part of this program, as would a rating system to provide buyers with information about performance, much like you find on energy rating labels for refrigerators and water efficiency labels for washing machines.

People often criticise technical solutions to problems, but in the case of Launceston’s air, technical fixes are just what is needed.

Comments (3)

  • admin
    September 4, 2009 at 2:22 am

    In July 2009, the Tasmanian Greens linked the state of the city’s air quality to the proposal for a pulp mill on the banks of the Tamar River.

    This is the Greens media release…


    As City Threatens To Breach Pollution Limit

    Kim Booth MP
    Greens Pulp Mill spokesperson

    Thursday, July 10 2009

    For Comment: Office of the Tasmanian Greens 6233 8300

    The Tasmanian Greens today labelled Labor and Liberal support for the proposed Gunns pulp mill with its wood fired power station, as reckless and endangering public health, as particulate readings for Launceston from Tuesday July 7 showed the city may have exceeded the daily 50mg limit.

    The Tamar Valley has a well documented inversion layer which acts like a blanket to trap pollution in the valley and particularly around Launceston.

    Greens Pulp Mill spokesperson, and Member for Bass, Kim Booth MP said that the potential breach occurring despite a reported drop in wood heaters from 25 000 a decade ago to 5000 today showed that wood heaters were not the sole cause for concern and that background pollution levels had reached saturation point in the Tamar valley air shed as far as Launceston was concerned.

    “On the government’s own figures eight people a year die from air-pollution related causes in Launceston and Tuesday’s unofficial figures show that Launceston is still exceeding pollution limits even with wood heaters being removed and without a pulp mill,” Mr Booth said. [1]

    “Launceston’s air shed has reached saturation level as far as background pollution levels go so what sane person would back building the world’s biggest pulp mill and a huge wood fired power station at the mouth of the valley with the prevailing wind coming towards the city?”

    “People have to remember that Gunns pulled out of the RPDC assessment and no site specific analysis was done on the pulp mill being located in the Tamar Valley.”

    “The fast track parliamentary approval of the pulp mill didn’t take into account the long term health impact of the pulp mill being in the Tamar Valley, with its well documented inversion layer acting like a blanket to trap pollution in the valley and yet the government and Liberals still blindly support it.”

    “Labor and Liberal both fully back this mill with no idea of the health impacts on the people of the Tamar Valley as no comprehensive data was ever produced which combined existing pollution levels from industry combined with projected pollution from the pulp mill with its chemical factory and wood fired power station burning 500 000 tonnes of green timber a year and 1 million tonnes of toxic dried black liquor.”

    “The power station alone adds the equivalent of 50 000 wood heaters by my calculation but Premier Bartlett and Will Hodgman bury their heads in the sand whilst the health of residents hangs in the balance,” Mr Booth said.

    Please find below reference

    [1] “…Assuming that the mortality rate increased by 1% per 10 ?g/m3, there were approximately 8 deaths per year in Launceston attributable to PM10. Using the $2.5 million value per death, the health costs in Launceston due to PM10 are estimated to be $20 million per year.”

    p23 Tasmanian Air Quality Strategy June 2006 Department of Tourism Arts and the Environment.

  • cleanair
    February 26, 2010 at 10:54 am

    The major contributor to poor air quality is planned burning.
    People should not have to be cold because of industry.
    Go here to see the facts….

  • Russ Grayson
    December 31, 2013 at 12:07 am

    It was during my December 2013 visit to Launceston that friends who live in the city told me that the air has been better these past couple years. Days of smoke seem to have gone.

    I haven’t checked why this is so, whether it’s the result of government action or pressure from the community. They said the government is discouraging open fires as a means of heating homes.

    Whatever the cause, it’s certainly good news and can only benefit people’s health and a small but pleasant city.

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