Govt approves West Coast mining land access

BILL MOORE AND MARTA STEEMAN
Last updated 15:36 23/05/2013
Denniston Plateau
TREASURED LAND: The proposed Escarpment Mine site, which would be flattened if the mine goes ahead.

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Labour accuses the Government of "riding roughshod over the process" with its approval today for Bathurst Resources to have access through conservation land for the Escarpment Mine on the Denniston Plateau.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith has approved a land-access deal for opencast mining by the Western Australian company on conservation land on the West Coast's Denniston Plateau. He has helped pave the way for Bathurst to begin digging millions of tonnes of top-quality coal from the area north of Westport.

The decision does not mean the mine has the green light, because the application remains the subject of court action by conservationists.

Labour conservation spokeswoman Ruth Dyson said the Government had missed an opportunity to allow the conservation groups and Bathurst to reach a compromise over the plateau.

Labour wanted to see an agreement where mining could go ahead, allowing for creation of jobs, while precious land was also protected.

"There was a real possibility of a win-win for both sides that would have seen mining go ahead while other areas were protected for conservation purposes.  A compromise could have been reached but the Government has stepped in at the last minute and blown that out of the water," she said.

A $22 million compensation package from Bathurst was welcome, but access to the conservation estate should never be dictated by money.

West Coast-Tasman MP Damian O'Connor said the mining industry needed security now more than ever, but "there is a real risk that this deal will create further legal action because it cuts across negotiations between the parties".

"The West Coast is crying out for jobs. But the last thing it needs is more uncertainty around the mining industry. People are already suffering because of the Government's mismanagement of Solid Energy and the closure of Spring Creek," O'Connor said.

In the land-access deal announced today, Bathurst will provide $22 million as compensation for loss of conservation values. The money is to fund pest and predator control over 25,000 hectares in the Kahurangi National Park and 4500 hectares on the Denniston Plateau, as well as for historic projects on the plateau.

It is the largest compensation package negotiated by the Department of Conservation for a mine or any commercial venture.

'LOWEST LEGAL STATUS'

The Escarpment Mine - which would become New Zealand's second largest opencast mine after Solid Energy's Stockton Mine on the neighbouring Stockton Plateau - is being fought by Forest and Bird and other conservation groups.

Ahead of Smith's announcement, West Coast Environment Network spokeswoman Lynley Hargreaves said it would be a rushed decision made to avoid public consultation.

"Opencast mining on high-value conservation land is not something the public of New Zealand support, and the Government knows that," she said.

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Hargreaves said the minister's decision had been timed to avoid new legislation coming into effect tomorrow that would require public consultation on significant mining of conservation land.

"With its low predator pressure and high biodiversity, the Denniston Plateau is actually just an inappropriate place for an open-cast coalmine," she said. 

Smith said the approval, under the Crown Minerals Act, was for an opencast mine on 106ha of the 2026ha that comprise the Denniston Plateau.

"This area is not national park, nor conservation park, nor does it have any particular reserve status," he said.

"It is general stewardship land, which is the lowest legal status of protection of land managed by the Department of Conservation."

He said it did have conservation values although there had been previous mining there including roads, bulldozer tracks and a reservoir, and there was some infestation from gorse and broom.

The agreement contained detailed monitoring provisions and comprehensive conditions to minimise the mine's adverse effects.

"I wish to signal, that in giving this approval, I do not consider it is acceptable to opencast mine all of the Denniston Plateau," Smith said.

"The plateau does have unique biodiversity and landscape values from its raised elevation, high rainfall and unusual land form. I wish to see some of the high-value areas reserved and put into permanent protection."

Constructive discussions between mining companies and environmental, historic and recreational groups were under way and offered a better way forward than long legal proceedings, Smith said.

"The Government will be working with all parties to try and find a 'bluegreen' long-term plan for the whole Denniston Plateau that balances conservation protection with the need for jobs and development."

West Coast Environment Network and Forest and Bird have lodged appeals to the Environment Court and the High Court challenging resource consents issued to Bathurst.

They are also awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court on declarations sought last year by Bathurst and state-owned Solid Energy to state that climate change considerations cannot be taken into account in issuing coalmining consents.

Bathurst, listed on the Australian and New Zealand stock exchanges, plans to eventually mine about four million tonnes of West Coast coal a year, and estimates there is enough for at least 40 years.

It says the Denniston mine will initially provide about 225 jobs, rising to 450 when full production is reached.

Many other West Coast and Nelson companies will be involved and Nelson's Brightwater Engineering has said it hoped to have 50 to 100 staff and sub-contractors working on the Denniston project.

Forest & Bird spokeswoman Debs Martin said earlier this month that the Denniston Plateau was "very very special" in ecological terms.

"It's about protecting a very special place - a sandstone plateau formed 40-60 million years ago and an ecosystem that's ancient," she said. 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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