Labour has accused the Government of ''riding roughshod over the process'' with its approval today for access through conservation land for the Escarpment Mine on the Denniston Plateau.
Labour conservation spokeswoman Ruth Dyson said the Government had missed an opportunity to allow conservation groups and Western Australian company Bathurst Resources to reach a compromise over the plateau.
The party wanted to see an agreement where mining could go ahead, allowing for creation of jobs, while precious land was 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.
West Coast-Tasman Labour 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,'' he said.
"People are already suffering because of the Government's mismanagement of Solid Energy and the closure of Spring Creek [coalmine]."
Bathurst Resources will pay a $22 million package to establish the opencast coalmine on the Denniston Plateau near Westport.
Conservation Minister Nick Smith has allowed access to conservation land for the large Escarpment Mine project.
He said the approval was for an opencast mine on 106 hectares of the 2026ha Denniston Plateau.
The area was not a national park and was general stewardship land, which was the lowest legal status of protection of land managed by the Department of Conservation, he said.
The area had conservation values, although there had been disturbance from previous mining, including roads, bulldozer tracks and a reservoir, he said.
"The loss of conservation values is compensated by a $22m package by Bathurst Resources,'' he said.
''This will fund pest and predator control over 25,000ha of the Heaphy River catchment in Kahurangi National Park, 4500ha on and around the Denniston Plateau, as well as for historic projects on the plateau itself.
"This is the largest-ever compensation package negotiated by DOC for a mine or other commercial venture.
"I wish to signal that in giving this approval I do not consider it is acceptable to opencast mine all of the Denniston Plateau. 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."
West Coast Environment Network spokeswoman Lynley Hargreaves said the announcement came a day before Smith had to consult with the public over the proposal because new legislation coming into effect tomorrow would force the Government to consult the public over significant mining proposals on conservation land.
The change was a result of a Crown Minerals Act review sparked by protests three years ago when the Government suggested it wanted to open up mining on schedule 4 conservation land, the most highly protected land.
"Nick Smith's decision today will obviously be a rushed decision made simply 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," Hargreaves said.
The Escarpment Mine would become New Zealand's second-largest opencast mine after Solid Energy's Stockton mine on the neighbouring Stockton Plateau.
The company's New Zealand subsidiary, Buller Coal, initially claimed it would create jobs for 225 people and contribute $1 billion to the economy over its six-year life.
Conservationists disputed that and said it did not outweigh major environmental damage caused by the mine if it went ahead.
In August 2011, three commissioners appointed by the West Coast Regional Council and the Buller District Council granted resource consents for the mine.
At the time, they voiced deep reservations over potential environmental impacts, with the mine almost entirely within the Mt Rochfort Conservation Area, deemed ''stewardship'' conservation land and unprotected from mining.
However, the commissioners believed the economics of it outweighed those concerns.
The Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society of New Zealand and the West Coast Environmental Network appealed against their decision to the Environment Court and a four-week appeal hearing was held last October, November and December.
The Fairdown-Whareatea Residents' Association also appealed, but later settled out of court and withdrew.
In late March, the court released an interim ruling indicating it would approve the mine.
A further three-day hearing over the appeal is due to start on Monday.
Bathurst Resources lodged a revised access arrangement application in March, shrinking the mine's pit area by a third to 106 hectares, making the mine's total footprint 109ha.
It also promised a shorter mine life, reducing it a year to five years, and would develop narrower roads.
The Government's decision was hailed as a "major step forward" for New Zealand's economy by lobby group Environment West Coast.
"We have a duty to ensure all industry on the West Coast respects our natural environment, is dedicated to supporting our social environment and benefits both the local and national economic environment," the group said.
Environment West Coast was formed on May 1 by a group of business owners who wanted to support Bathurst.
The group said a "vocal minority" was pressuring the Government to end extractive mining, but it believed responsible mining practices should championed, not shut down.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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