Pre-European fires modified plateu, court hears

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 16:31 26/11/2012

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Damage from pre-European fires has modified Denniston Plateau's exposed bedrock habitat, the Environment Court has heard today at an appeal over a proposed new West Coast mine.

Today, a four-week appeal resumed in Greymouth against resource consents granted to Bathurst Resources' New Zealand subsidiary Buller Coal Ltd for a large opencast mine on conservation land near Westport.

A consultant ecologist employed by the Australian coalmining company, Fred Overmars, told the court about 14ha of sandstone erosion pavements within the proposed 158.7ha mine's footprint had been altered by ancient fires.

He believed it was most likely from early Maori fires and contributed to a ''degree of ecosystem transformation''.

Previous underground mining in more than 40 per cent the proposed mine site had also altered the habitat, he said.

Overmars, managing director of Sustainability Solutions Ltd with 32 years ecology experience, disputed claims the area should be classed an endangered rare ecosystem because of such changes.

However, he agreed rehabilitation after mining would lead to an altered forest structure.

The oldest pink pine trees, an endemic conifer, in the mine area were about 500 years old and future restoration of tall forests would take about the same amount of time, his written evidence noted.

About 20ha of sandstone erosion pavements were within the mine's footprint and would be impossible to re-create after mining, he said.

When three commissioners, appointed by the West Coast Regional Council and Buller District Council, granted the mine's resource consents in August last year, they voiced deep reservations over potential environmental impacts.

However, they approved them because of the mine's financial benefits for the Buller district and the West Coast. It is almost entirely within the Mount Rochfort Conservation Area, deemed ''stewardship'' conservation land and unprotected from mining.

If it progresses, it will become New Zealand's second largest opencast coalmine after Solid Energy's Stockton Mine on the neighbouring Stockton Plateau.

The court case has been heard for two weeks in Christchurch earlier this month and after this week's hearings in Greymouth, it will return to Christchurch next week for a final week.

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- Fairfax Media

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