The RMA Quality Planning Resource

Managing activities that can have an adverse effect on air quality is a complex issue. This is primarily due to the multiple factors that result in poor air quality, many of which are not directly controlled through the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA). The government has a series of initiatives underway to address air pollution nationwide. Local authorities are also working to improve air quality in each region. This guidance note focuses on managing regional and local air quality under the RMA. These are defined as follows:

Regional = affects whole regions, cities and/or airsheds (for example, emissions from transport and domestic heating).

Local = affects just the immediate vicinity (for example, emissions from specific discharges, often large industrial plants or specific roadway intersections).

Air quality management under the RMA is directly impacted by:

Air quality effects

Air quality in New Zealand is primarily managed to protect human health. This is, therefore, the focus of this guidance note. See the air we breathe for more information on the adverse effects of air pollution.

Poor air quality can adversely affect human health. Air pollution further degrades the wider environment and reduces amenity. The main source of air pollution nationally is home heating, with transport being the primary source in Auckland.

Table 1 characterises typical air quality issues by source, whether or not the issue is localised or can affect regional air quality, and its potential effects on people and the environment. The sources in Table 1 are examples only.

Table 1: Themes for air quality issue identification

Issue

Example sources

Potential effects

Agrichemical spray drift

Horticulture and weed spraying

Local air quality

Skin irritation, stress, headaches, vegetation damage

Livelihood of organic growers

Chemical or gaseous contaminants

Motor vehicles, industry, oil refining, foundries, volcanoes

Regional and local air quality

Respiratory illness, nausea, complex toxicological effects

Corrosion, visibility and photochemical smog

Combustion products

Domestic heating, boilers, power stations, backyard fires, rural burn-off, road-seal burning, motor vehicles

Regional and local air quality

Respiratory and cardiovascular disease, reduced infection resistance, nerve and organ damage, increased risk of cancers, premature death.

Deposition, corrosion, smog and visibility

Odour

Pig farms, landfills, wastewater treatment, composting

Local air quality

Health, nuisance and stress

Detracts from amenity and enjoyment

Particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5)

Home heating fires, motor vehicles especially diesels, most combustion sources

Regional and local air quality

Premature death (including post-neonatal respiratory mortality), respiratory and cardiovascular disease, adverse effects on lung function development, aggravation of asthma, etc.

Visibility degradation, smog, deposition

Total suspended particulate (TSP)

Quarries, stockpiles, unsealed roads

Local air quality

Respiratory, eye and nose irritation, lung disease (if hazardous dusts)

Deposition, corrosion, smog and visibility

Long-term exposure to air pollutants can result in premature death in humans, estimated in 2012 at 1,175 deaths each year in New Zealand. The social cost of air pollution in New Zealand is estimated to be around $4.28 billion each year. More information on the effects of air pollution on human health can be found in the Updated Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand Study (HAPINZ) report.

Air pollution also adversely affects the wider environment, and in particular, can have significant adverse effects on ecosystems (e.g. nitrogen dioxide is toxic to plants and reduced plant growth), visibility (e.g. sulphur dioxide can form secondary particulate matter that causes haze and reduces visibility) and built structures (e.g. nitrogen dioxide forms acids in the presence of moisture and these can be corrosive to building materials at high concentrations).

The legislative context and background

The purpose of the RMA is to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources, including safeguarding the life supporting capacity of the air. Of particular relevance for air quality management is section 7(f), which states that persons exercising powers under the RMA must have particular regard to:

“maintenance and enhancement of the quality of the environment”.

Regional council and territorial authority functions for air quality under the RMA

The primary responsibility for managing air quality under the RMA lies with regional councils (and unitary authorities). However, territorial authorities have a responsibility to manage the effects of land use and subdivision, which can also impact on air quality. Both regional councils and territorial authorities also have particular requirements under the national environmental standards for air quality.

Regional councils

Regional councils have responsibilities under s30 of the RMA for the control of discharges of contaminants to air. Regional council responsibilities also include the strategic integration of infrastructure with land use (under s30(1)(gb)) and regional transport planning under the Local Government Act 2002.

Regional Policy Statements and Plans

A regional policy statement may provide policy guidance with respect to the management of air quality. A regional plan (if one is prepared) must give effect to the provisions of the regional policy statement. Therefore, if the regional policy statement addresses air quality, any regional (or district) plan must give effect to its provisions.

Effective regional air quality management requires a combination of the national environmental standards for air quality, regional policy statements and regional plans (including resource consents processed under the requirements of regional plans).

All regional councils in New Zealand have a regional policy statement and regional plan that control air discharges. Some councils have regional plans specifically for air quality (“air plans”), while others incorporate air quality issues into broader based ‘natural resource management plans’ dealing with land, air and water quality and quantity issues.

Regional plans are different for each region, reflecting different local air quality issues.

Territorial authorities

Territorial authorities have responsibilities under s31 to control the subdivision of land, and to achieve integrated management of the effects of the use, development or protection of land and associated natural and physical resources of the district. This includes effects on amenity values and effects of the land transport system. Territorial authorities also have responsibilities under the Health Act, but these are not relevant to district plan provisions.

Effects of climate change

Climate change effects are a matter to be given particular regard under s7 of the RMA. The roles of regional councils in respect of greenhouse gas emissions are:

  • Section 70A requires that when making rules to control discharges to air "a regional council must not have regard to the effects of such a discharge on climate change, except to the extent that the use and development of renewable energy enables a reduction in the discharge into air of greenhouse gases"; and
  • When considering an application for a discharge permit or coastal permit relating to discharges of greenhouse gases, s104E requires that "a consent authority must not have regard to the effects of such a discharge on climate change, except to the extent that the use and development of renewable energy enables a reduction in the discharge into air of greenhouse gases"

Integration of regional council and territorial authority roles

The different functions of regional councils and territorial authorities may cause tensions when managing air quality, such as allowing incompatible activities to be situated in proximity, for example allowing residential housing alongside existing wastewater treatment plants. To effectively manage air quality, relationships need to be managed and roles integrated.

The RMA requires district plans to 'give effect to' regional policy statements. Further, district plans must not be inconsistent with the relevant regional plan. It is therefore important for regional policy statements to provide clear direction on how the air quality issues of the region are to be managed. Equally, it is critical that there is effective engagement between regional councils and territorial authorities when both regional and district plans are being prepared and reviewed.

Developing good dialogue and partnership agreements are the best means of ensuring clarity of roles and responsibilities. These may be formalised through the regional policy statement, regional plans, delegations or negotiated memorandums of understanding. The integrated management of land use and transport activities that may result in adverse effects on air quality is also essential to meet the requirements of the national environmental standards for air quality. This is important because polluted airsheds face constraints on development (e.g. requirements for new industry to offset emissions).

National environmental standards for air quality

The Resource Management (National Environmental Standards for Air Quality) Regulations 2004 are national environmental standards (NES) under ss 43 and 44 of the RMA. The national environmental standards for air quality were introduced in October 2004 and are designed to protect public health and the environment by setting concentration limits for clear air, regulating or prohibiting certain activities that pollute the air and imposing air quality monitoring and reporting requirements on regional councils.  

The regulations contain a number of mandatory requirements:

  • prohibitions (bans) on certain activities that discharge significant quantities of dioxins and other toxics into the air;
  • health-based standards for ambient (outdoor) air quality;
  • a requirement to monitor and give public notice if an air quality standard is (or is likely to be) breached;
  • extended deadlines for compliance with the ambient standard for PM10 for certain airsheds (depending on the level of pollution);
  • requirement for new industry (only) with significant PM10 emissions to offset these emissions in polluted airsheds;
  • restrictions on granting consents that would breach the ambient standards for carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and/or ozone;
  • emission and efficiency requirements for new wood burners installed in urban areas;
  • requirement for regional council to give public notice and prohibition (ban) on the installation of new solid fuel burning open fires in polluted airsheds after 1 September 2011;
  • a requirement for landfills over 1 million tonnes of refuse to collect greenhouse gas emissions.

Regional councils and unitary authorities are responsible for managing air quality under the Resource Management Act.

One of the first requirements of the air standards was for regional councils (including unitary authorities) to identify areas where air quality is either likely to or known to exceed the air standards; these areas are known as airsheds. As of January 2012, there are 71 gazetted airsheds. Of these, around 25 are likely to exceed the national environmental standard for particulate matter less than ten micrometres in diameter (PM10) (as at time of writing, winter 2013). Because they exceed the PM10 standard (or are likely to), these airsheds face restrictions on the granting of resource consents.

The Ministry for the Environment has published detailed guidance for councils and practitioners on how these restrictions apply, and more generally how to implement the national environmental standards for air quality:

2011 Users’ Guide to the Revised National Environmental Standards for Air Quality

In 2011, the national environmental standards for air quality were amended to provide additional time for compliance with the PM10 standard. The Ministry for the Environment has published specific guidance on compliance for councils:

Clean Healthy Air for All New Zealanders: The National Air Quality Compliance Strategy to Meet the PM10 Standard

Requirement for local authorities to observe national environmental standards for air quality

Sections 44A(7) and 44A(8) require local authorities to observe national environmental standards and to enforce them to the extent which their powers enable them to do so.

Relationship of the national environmental standards for air quality with plans, designations and resource consents

Sections 43B and 43D of the RMA set out the relationship between the national environmental standards for air quality, rules in plans, designations and resource consents as outlined below.

Rules in plans

The national environmental standards for air quality do not:

  • prevail over a rule that is more stringent than the regulations, if this is expressly provided for by the national environmental standards for air quality (s43B(1)).

A rule in a plan must not be more lenient than the national environmental standards for air quality. This is called the 'stricter provision prevails ' principle (s43B(3)).

Designations

The national environmental standards for air quality do not apply to existing designations unless either:

  • the designation lapses, or
  • any conditions of the designation which are relevant to the national environmental standards for air quality are altered (whichever is the earlier) (s43D(1)).

The national environmental standards for air quality do apply to and must be considered by the territorial authority when considering:

  • a designation that requires an outline plan, where the outline plan process under s176A has not been completed at the time the national environmental standards for air quality were made (s43D(3))
  • any new notice of requirement (s43D(4))

Resource consents

The national environmental standards for air quality do not apply to:

  • a resource consent that existed when the regulations were made. Therefore, the national environmental standards for air quality do not affect consents that existed before 6 September 2004 (except for s128 reviews relating to water, coastal and discharge permits, see below) (s43B(5))
  • a resource consent for which a decision on notification was taken prior to 6 September 2004 (s43B(7)). This was the date of the gazettal of the regulations.

The national environmental standards for air quality do apply to:

  • Any review under s128(1)(ba) of the RMA for any water, coastal or discharge permit (s43B(6)).
  • The "renewal" process for any resource consent under s124.

A resource consent must not be more lenient than the national environmental standards for air quality. This is called the 'stricter provision prevails' principle (s43B(3)).

See the 2011 Users Guide to the regulations, and the national environmental standards for air quality pages on the Ministry for the Environment website for more information.