DOC mine disapproval ignored

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 14:29 24/05/2013

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Conservation Minister Nick Smith ignored strong opposition from his department to approve a huge opencast coalmine on West Coast conservation land.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) today made public its advice to Smith on whether he should give access to Australian mining company Bathurst Resources for its proposed 106-hectare Escarpment Mine on the Denniston Plateau near Westport.

Smith yesterday announced his decision to approve Bathurst's application for access to the area, a day before changes to the Crown Minerals Act meant access for major mining proposals would have to be publicly notified.

He admitted the mine would damage the plateau's conservation values, but Bathurst's $22 million conservation package, the largest reached by the department, had swayed his views.

The department's 246-page decision, dated May 6, did not state whether Smith should approve the application, but its opposition to the mining proposal was plain.

It noted Bathurst's proposal failed in key areas that Smith had to consider under the Crown Minerals Act when ruling on such mining access applications.

The application by Bathurst's subsidiary, Buller Coal, was ''inconsistent'' with the objectives of the Conservation Act, the purpose for which the land was held by the Crown and the conservation management strategy, its report said.

It was ''particularly concerned'' about losses to natural and historic resources at the site.

That included losing 106ha of elevated Buller coal measure ecosystems, 20ha of which was rare sandstone erosion pavements, rare plants, endangered wildlife, such as lizards, giant snails and great spotted kiwi, nationally significant wetlands, plus recreational values.

The only positive part of the application was the $22m compensation offer, which the department said ''would achieve significant conservation gains overall''.

That money would be used to fund pest and predator control over 25,000ha of the Heaphy River catchment in Kahurangi National Park for 35 years, as well as on 4500ha on the plateau and surrounds for 50 years.

The department said that compensation would not provide a ''like for like'' exchange of biodiversity but would contribute major gains for the Heaphy catchment and beech forest surrounding the Denniston Plateau, plus historic values on the plateau.

Bathurst had strongly criticised the report, claiming it over-estimated the mine's adverse effects, and presented a ''worst-case scenario'', the report revealed.

''It is clear from the balance of the information provided by the applicant and subsequent information provided by department experts that there would be significant and irreversible adverse effects on the conservation values and overall ecological integrity of the application area and the Denniston Plateau should the proposed activity be approved.''

It said the key issue for Smith or his delegate was deciding whether proposed partial safeguards and the compensation package outweighed the ''inconsistency of the application with the objectives of the Conservation Act, the purposes for which the land is held by the Crown and the Conservation Management Strategy''.

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Smith said yesterday that his decision was not rushed ahead of law changes; he make his mind up on Tuesday.

''I took the view that this decision should be made under the legislation in which the application was lodged over four years ago,'' he said.

Information from Smith's office yesterday showed Bathurst had asked Smith to decide on itsapplication before the law changes came into force.

It had changed its application for access two months ago, shrinking the mine's pit area by a third to 106ha.

While Bathurst had a mining permit, its resource consents were still under appeal and Smith's access agreement could yet face legal challenges.

Forest & Bird's top of the south regional field officer, Debs Martin, said yesterday that its lawyers were examining Smith's decision to consider whether to seek a judicial review to overturn it.

The conservation group and West Coast Environmental Network appealed against the mine's resource consents, granted in August 2011, to the Environment Court.

The court released an interim ruling two months ago indicating it would approve the mine, a decision the groups also appealed.

A three-day hearing on that appeal was due to start on Monday.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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