A proposed soapstone mine in Golden Bay is causing ructions, but the man behind the mine wants to use the stone to produce, eco-friendly, heat-retentive woodburners, reducing CO2 emissions. Naomi Arnold reports.
It takes quite a while to get to the quarry site. It's a long drive up the Cobb Valley, following a gravel road through a deep cleft between the mountain ranges that cradle Golden Bay, past the power station, the boulder-strewn Takaka River down steep bluffs on your left, and up a steep and twisty gravel road.
You can park at the top near the information kiosk and follow a narrow, rocky path to a trig, where you'll be able to look down into the next valley and see the Cobb Dam and reservoir, its long puddle of water a smooth, bright blue. To your right, across the dried-up riverbed, is a patch of beech forest, windblown now after recent storms. The trees are growing on top of a mineral outcrop of such potential value that it was deliberately left out of Kahurangi National Park when it formed in 1996.
It's scattered with a few lighter patches where several outcrops of talc magnesite, also known as steatite or soapstone, poke their heads above the beech trees. They are New Zealand's most easily accessible sources of soapstone and the subject of Golden Bay's latest heated environmental battle.
It is between Steatite Ltd's owner Gion Deplazes, a Swiss architectural designer who has lived in New Zealand for 20 years, and those in Golden Bay who don't want to see his company quarry the outcrops and their deep roots for possibly the next 40.
Since 2008, Mr Deplazes has owned a mining permit covering this small patch of stewardship land. His goal is to secure a source of rock to build highly heat-retentive soapstone stoves, an environmentally friendly heating technology new to New Zealand but a trade that his grandfather started in Switzerland in 1922.
Those opposed to the plan say quarrying will wreck the peace of the easily accessible Cobb, and the rock's unique mineral composition has created a home for plants and animals that are far too valuable to destroy through quarrying.
Yet the area is nowhere near pristine. One of the outcrops has been quarried before: Mr Deplazes says that from the 1960s onward, under Lime and Marble Ltd, explosives were used to extract magnesium from the quarry for use on tobacco farms until the early 1990s. In fact, if you continue driving down the twisty road to the Cobb Dam, up the valley side, and along a 4WD track, you can stand in the middle of the quarried remains, an amphitheatre-like space with tall soapstone bluffs on one side creating a silent sort of cathedral.
Mr Deplazes plans to use this road to take out the rock, plus build a new one to the outcrops higher up the hill. For several decades, 10-tonne blocks will be cut on site by diamond wire saw and transported one by one down the Cobb Rd. An accommodation block is to be built there, housing workers with their associated plumbing and cooking facilities; he plans to use portaloos and discharge grey water to land.
The area is popular with trampers, 4WD enthusiasts, botanists, birdwatchers, and holidaymakers who find peace and solitude in the community housing near the dam.
The Nelson Mail visited the area with members of Golden Bay Forest and Bird and Friends of the Cobb. All are lovers of the area, and all are outraged by the plans. On the day we visit, a group from the Canterbury Botanical Society are crouching over plants on the ground, photographing. They're particularly excited about one find - but it's apparently so unexpected that they swear the Nelson Mail to secrecy.
Jo Ann Vaughan, Golden Bay branch secretary of Forest and Bird, came to the area with her husband when they retired because of their love of the Cobb. She says when Mr Deplazes first consulted with Forest and Bird in 2010, she badly wanted the plan to work. She liked the product, she liked that he came from a family who had made products from it for 150 years, and she liked that he was a local proposing a small family business. However, preservation of the area won out. It should never have been left out of Kahurangi National Park in the first place, she says, and says the quarry and its 5ha of working space would be an eyesore.
"The area is actually more special than its immediate surroundings," she says. "Destruction would be highly visible and non-remediable; it would be an affront to all who see it."
Fossils remain in caves and rock shelters - bones of kakapo, wrens, bats and other animals, including New Zealand's youngest moa bones, and rare mummified remains of an owlet-nightjar, holding perhaps the only DNA record of the extinct New Zealand bird. Many more secrets may remain.
Along with Farewell Spit, and the Canaan karst system, Kahurangi National Park is on the "tentative" list for World Heritage Site status - a list of places that New Zealand considers to have natural heritage of outstanding universal value. The outcrops are home to plants that have evolved over thousands of years, creating an area with the second-highest rate of endemism in the country.
Indeed, a 2010 report for Steatite Ltd prepared by Wildlife Surveys found several threatened plant species within the mining permit area, as well as 26 bird species, including 18 indigenous species, many on the threatened list: New Zealand falcon, western weka, South Island kaka, kea, long-tailed cuckoo, South Island rifleman, silvereyes, bellbirds, tomtits, kakariki, robins, grey warblers, fantail, and tui. Geckos were almost certainly present at the site.
The report considered the high numbers of individual birds within the Cobb area exceptional for a montane forest habitat in the South Island, and said their abundance may be due to the variety of habitats and diverse flora provided by different soils.
Forest and Bird are not happy with Mr Deplazes' plans to retain this plant and bird diversity by creating flora rehabilitation bunds with waste rock, called "overburden"; they say the plants have evolved over thousands of years in humus-filled pockets and dark, cool drip zones, an environment it would be simply impossible to recreate.
"I don't know how [Mr Deplazes] can promote huge scars and taking away a very special habitat in a national park as green," Jo Ann Vaughan says.
Andrew Yuill, a Golden Bay engineer, also points out that the narrow roads are extremely dangerous and heavy trucks will discourage tourists from visiting and enjoying the area. Indeed, as the narrow gravel road is now, it's near impossible in many places for two cars - let alone a car and a truck carrying a 10-tonne block of soapstone - to pass safely.
He also questions the need for the soapstone stoves in a New Zealand winter climate, much milder than in Europe, and points out the bare scree slopes left over from the previous magnesite quarrying.
However, Mr Deplazes insists the quarrying is environmentally friendly and will eventually build a new industry here. He says the backlash against his proposal has been harsh, which he blames on media.
"The benefits in relation to drawbacks over a lifetime have not been made clear enough; there are no burners here so people can't appreciate it," he says.
"A burner outlasts our use of oil-driven cars quite easily." A keen tramper, he says there will be relatively small amounts of rock and habitat removed over time, with ongoing rehabilitation on disturbed areas. "Being green is actually not using Nigerian oil to drive to the Cobb and have a holiday," he says. "It's using our resources in a reasonable manner." He keeps his laptop - made with minerals mined overseas, he points out - on a cooling soapstone slab in his home office.
Because he is still in the middle of the access arrangement application process, he says it is impossible to answer direct questions about the number and timing of truck movements, the numbers employed, the visible quarry workings, when the stoves might start to be made, or potential revenue from them; it is too early to tell. Indeed, he says one of the outcrops and part of another are likely to be taken out of the consent process because of plant life there. He is confident that his flora rehabilitation bunds will recreate the plants' environments adjacent to the quarry.
He says the Cobb Valley is already highly modified, with its hydro power station, dam, airstrip, and power poles; and that the quarry's small operation area means the extraction will not endanger the park's birds, plants, and other animals, nor recreational activity. Indeed, the Wildlife Surveys report ultimately concluded that the development was unlikely to exacerbate the current adverse effects on birds by introduced pests and predators, and Steatite Ltd aims to help Friends of the Cobb carry out pest control.
However, he is adamant that use of the rock in woodburners will lessen global carbon impact, as they use less fuel to warm a house; and points out that New Zealanders will happily import from other countries but cry "Not in my backyard!" when the focus swings locally.
Mr Deplazes is keen to demonstrate the point of all this; and so he takes the Nelson Mail to visit Sylvia Arnold's home in the Graham Valley.
Her partner, Bruce Geddes, runs Freedom Energy alternative power systems, and Mrs Arnold is a reiki practitioner and healer.
In the lounge is a tall grey soapstone stove, imported from Finland and installed by Ecostove New Zealand in spring last year. It is one of just a handful in the country, and the pair have agreed to play a part in promoting it, demonstrating theirs to interested people.
Their new 1600kg housemate is, quite frankly, beautiful: a polished, imposing, yet refined masterpiece, with firebox and oven, in which Mrs Arnold is eagerly looking forward to cooking casseroles.
"I have always wanted a soapstone stove," Mrs Arnold, originally from Germany, says. The door is cast iron and glass and the stove works by burning a small basket of wood fiercely for about three hours - and they swear that is enough to keep the home warm for 24. Mrs Arnold says the few times they've used it so far, the sides were still warm even 36 hours later.
It cost them $12,000, a price which can vary widely according to the homeowner's requirements. As Mr Geddes points out, it was worth it. It will last for more than a hundred years.
"When you consider the length of time that this appliance will last, compared with a steel firebox; to me it's a no-brainer," Mr Geddes says. "There are stoves like this a couple of hundred years old in Europe."
"Older," Mr Deplazes interjects.
Mr Geddes says New Zealanders do not think long-term - just about the immediate impact on our pockets. "New Zealand is still running on the settler mentality - making do with the least amount of money to get something that'll work in the meantime. You can see it in our housing; it's all been focused on low initial cost, not performance and lifetime running costs.
"When you build something like this you're building it for future generations as well."
Mr Geddes and Mrs Arnold say it was a long process with the Tasman District Council to get it installed, and indeed, Mr Deplazes hasn't got one in his own home for that reason. But he compares soapstone stoves to the meteoric rise of decent coffee in New Zealand over the last 20 years. "You don't use it until you know it."
The Nelson Mail could find no independent New Zealand efficiency tests specifically comparing soapstone stoves with other woodburners.
However, all wood burners on Tasman District Council's approved list discharge less than 1.5 gram of particles for each kilogram of dry wood burned and have a thermal efficiency of at least 65 per cent; Mr Geddes says Swiss company SGS rated the stove at 83 per cent efficiency, even using firewood with a moisture content of 12 per cent.
"That's a phenomenal figure considering the New Zealand tests require zero percent moisture content in the firewood," he says. "On that basis most clean-burning New Zealand stoves come out in the 70s. This is streets ahead."
In a European winter the recommended rate is 1kg of wood per 100kg of stone to provide heat for 24 hours. "Considering we don't have the cold temperatures here you're looking at a basketful of wood on a cold night."
Ecostoves New Zealand owner Clemens Van Druenen says his simple, high-combustion soapstone stoves' p10 rating is 0.75g/kg of fuel. It has been complicated getting them installed in New Zealand homes because of councils' clean air regulations. It has taken him years of testing and negotiating. "Efficiency is sky high and I think that is hard to believe," he says.
"People are suspicious because the results are so good, and they are totally unfamiliar with this sort of appliance."
Back in Mr Deplazes' office, he picks up soapstone sample discs with varying surface treatments, cut and smoothed in Timaru - there is nowhere in Nelson to produce it, he says. His brothers' quarry in Switzerland doesn't produce its own soapstone any more, importing their stone from Brazil, Scandinavia and India. He says the Cobb soapstone will initially be exported there as slabs to be worked, and he hopes to move production to New Zealand at a later date.
A 2010 assessment by Mine Design Systems Ltd estimates that the three main outcrops in the quarry could provide 15,000 tonnes of cut rock per year for between 31 and 40 years, depending on losses. The current price for 1kg of soapstone is about 1.8 Swiss francs (NZ$2.37), though Mr Deplazes is not prepared to make any economic projections of company revenue. A Ministry of Economic Development representative confirmed Steatite Ltd's royalty regime will be 1 per cent of their net sales revenue - not profit - up to $1.5m per year, and 2 per cent if the revenue is over $1.5m.
As things stand now, the company has its mining permit, but also needs approval from the Department of Conservation to access the land, an application that is on hold as DOC waits for more information about how the operation will affect the landscape.
Iwi also need to be consulted, but a Manawhenua Ki Mohua representative said they have a policy not to talk to media. The resource consent has been lodged but is on hold. Mr Deplazes is not giving any indication of time scales. All there is now to do is wait and see.