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The Ouruhia Affair - A Win-Win Situation Or A Lose-Lose Affair?
Jacqueline Steincamp - 14/1/00

If you haven't already, you may like to read the first article in this series.

Jacqueline Steincamp
No one is exactly triumphant. Was it a win-win situation, or perhaps a lose-lose affair? Nevertheless, the four-year Ouruhia radio tower fracas came to an amicable conclusion. The Ouruhia residents virtually won their case against The Radio Network and the Christchurch City Council. Australia and New Zealand radio frequency field standards are set to be tightened up.

Health problems the underlying issue
The underlying issue was the health problems thought to be connected to AM and FM transmissions from a poorly situated radio tower in the midst of a fairly well-populated rural area just north of Christchurch.

Government has now directed the Ministry for the Environment in partnership with the Ministry of Health to develop national guidelines for managing the effects of radiofrequency facilities ... in other words, radio and TV transmission towers, cell phone towers, and microwave emissions. A greatly enlarged committee has now drafted a revised standard which is currently available for comment.

The Draft is to emphasise the need for industry to adopt a 'precautionary approach' in setting levels for human exposure to RF fields. On the other hand, it has to take into consideration the need to 'meet service requirements'.

Determination paid off
It was a long and fairly grisly battle. Following the residents' legal challenge in the Environment Court (1995) against the Christchurch City Council and The Radio Network, the matter went to mediation, and then to an Appeal lodged by the residents. Towards the end of the Appeal proceedings, Radio Network approached the appellants and settled out of court with a payment of $40,000 to cover their legal expenses.

Even though there was no legal requirement for Radio Network to change the transmissions, two of four FM transmitters were canned following the hearings. The 137m Ouruhia tower now has one AM transmission (ZB Newstalk) and 1 FM transmission (Classic Hits), according to Gerard Carpenter, technical manager for Radio Network in Christchurch. Another AM transmission may be added. The future scenario is likely to be 2 AM stations and 1 FM station - instead of 2 AM and 4 FM Radio Network had originally wanted.

"We're all basically very pleased with the outcome. Had we had an out-and-out win, Radio Network could have gone to the High Court and that would have been totally beyond us," said Jill Gough, treasurer of the Ouruhia Residents' Association. "On the other hand, we certainly wouldn't mind moving away from the area when all the fuss has died down. "

Costs to the residents
Though getting any 'community' to work together on controversial issues is usually well nigh impossible, both the sick and the well had banded together in their common purpose. Deciding to accept the Radio Network offer was almost the hardest decision. The Group's decision to accept mediation and a payout split its members, with some high powered sufferers wanting to pursue Radio Network - to the High Court if need be. So hard feelings and a sense of betrayal are mixed in with the relief that the four-year battle is over.

The group's chairperson, retired school inspector Bob Rogers, feels that $40,000 in the hand was preferable to continuing the legal proceedings with no guarantee of success and the possibility of further legal fees - fees which the group could not afford. He estimates around $70,000 went in legal costs and expert witnesses. The most sick dug deepest - with $6 -7,000 coming from some families; many of the less affected, or those who were completely well, contributing around $1,000.

Dr Neil Cherry of Lincoln University, whose work on EMR is widely known, was one witness who donated his time and expertise to the cause. The most expensive witnesses were those from overseas whose travel and accommodation expenses had to be met. One was Dr Bruce Hocking, an Australian EMR authority and professor of occupational medicine as principal witness. He came over twice from Sydney. Another was Dr Theodor Abelin, MD, MPH, a Swiss professor of public health (Berne University) and principal researcher into the Schwarzenberg radio transmission problems. A delightful character, he also consulted widely with public health professionals in this country.

The Ouruhia aftermath
It appears human health problems at Ouruhia have reduced. Some of those worst affected, like horse trainer Penny Hargreaves, have moved away (with marked health improvements). There are fewer reports of unusual pains, fatigue and general immune complaints among those who are staying put. This may well be due to the fewer number of transmissions now going out from the tower. No-one really knows. Gerard Carpenter swears there have been no changes to direction, angle or power of the beams since the Appeal.

Chairperson Bob Rogers worries that the Christchurch City Council agreement to monitor EM fields only when there are changes in transmissions may not be as thorough as they should be. The Schwarzenberg monitoring is carried out continuously with between 100 and 150 fixed monitoring stations. "Here a technician will basically walk around with a metering device and possibly concentrate on a couple of sites only," he said. What he would like to see is a permanent monitoring station run by an independent service, with results freely available to all three parties. He'd also like to see more trees being planted in the area - sited so as to protect homes from EM fields.

Getting on with life
Meanwhile, the residents get on with their lives. They are a lively lot. Their latest community newsletter notes that they've made submissions regarding the Council's Draft Air Plan, the proposed Waimakariri Plan, Arterial Road Proposals for Marshlands Road. It also thanks all those who took part in the Ouruhia EM Appeal ... for obtaining their health records, attending appointments, giving financial input, and helping with raffle tickets and garage sales.


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