Anti-coal stance against the grain in smoky Southland town

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Carol Cudby Robinson has sealed cracks in her doors and windows to keep the smell of coal out of her house.

Matthew Rosenberg

Carol Cudby Robinson has sealed cracks in her doors and windows to keep the smell of coal out of her house.

As one rural Southland resident burns through coal by the tonne, his neighbour two doors down tapes her windows to keep the stench at bay.

Last week, Ohai Coal Mine announced it would cease its operation at the end of this month, drawing the ire of its small working-class community.

But while many lamented the end of an era for a town built on fossil fuel, Carol Cudby Robinson didn’t shed a tear.

The ex-Marlborough resident moved to Ohai to be mortgage-free, but says she’s struggled to settle into a place so passionate about burning coal, residents do it even when it’s sunny.

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“With the coal fires burning as intensely as they are … if someone burns a fire, it hangs around,” she says.

“I can’t go outside, it’s that bad. I know, because my eyes burn.”

Cudby Robinson says the smoke got so difficult to cope with, she had to put masking tape around her windows and doors to stop the fumes getting in.

She’s calling on Environment Southland (the regional council) to ban the domestic burning of coal, joining a chorus of concerned voices worldwide.

The sleepy town of Ohai is home to about 300 people.

Matthew Rosenberg

The sleepy town of Ohai is home to about 300 people.

The International Energy Agency has petitioned for an immediate end to new coal mines, and the UN secretary general has said all planned coal projects should be cancelled.

Aside from the environmental impact, research also paints a damning picture of risk to human health.

Toxic compounds produced by burning coal are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

But in Ohai, the anti-coal stance is an unpopular one. Even though there are obvious health concerns, the sedimentary rock is inextricable from the life and work of its residents.

Two doors down from CudbyRobinson lives ex-miner Don Lumsden, who retired from Ohai Coal Mine in 2004 after 38 years of service.

Don Lumsden worked at Ohai Coal Mine for 38 years.

Matthew Rosenberg

Don Lumsden worked at Ohai Coal Mine for 38 years.

During that time he operated “just about every machine they had on the place”.

Lumsden burns 10 tonnes of coal a year – which has a street value of about $4000 – but gets it at a reduced cost because of his years at the mine.

Asked if he was concerned about pollution in the town, he said it was only Kaitangata coal that caused a problem.

“It’s alright for these people in Auckland. They never see snow like we see it. We’re under the Takitimu Mountains here.

“A few years ago we had a fall of snow, I’d say we had two and a half, three feet. And then it froze on top of it.

“We were frozen out for a month and a half.

“How are we supposed to keep warm?”

For Lumsden, coal’s efficiency will always reign supreme.

“That had a piece of coal on it at half past seven,” he says, pointing to his fire.

“Can you not feel the heat still coming out?”

Takitimu coal mine operates in nearby Nightcaps. It's owner, Bathurst Resources Ltd, is looking to extend its operation into Ohai.

Bathurst Resources

Takitimu coal mine operates in nearby Nightcaps. It’s owner, Bathurst Resources Ltd, is looking to extend its operation into Ohai.

Environment Southland policy and planning manager Lucy Hicks said the Regional Air Plan did not restrict the burning of coal in domestic appliances.

But there are currently no multi-fuel or coal burners that are compliant with the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality.

“This means we are seeing less coal being burned as older burners are replaced,” Hicks said.

Although Ohai Coal Mine is pulling out of the area, nearby Nightcaps is still home to Takitimu Mine.

New Brighton Collieries Ltd are currently analysing data obtained from exploration at a forestry block in Ohai for a potential extension to their existing operation.

The forestry block is owned by Southland District Council, which has been taken to court by Forest & Bird for allowing the exploration.

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