The news a geologically important site is set to be mined by an off-shore company for animal food has shocked scientists – and former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

The site in Middlemarch is full of 23 million-year-old fossils which offer important clues to New Zealand’s past.

The fossils are contained in diatomite, which is the substance the majority Malaysian-owned company plans to turn into a food for pigs, chickens and turkeys.

There are fears, prompted by a leaked confidential report and an application to buy the surrounding farm, that Plaman Resources intends to fully mine Foulden Maar.

The leaked report, written by Goldman Sachs, the multinational investment bank which has loaned Plaman Resources almost $30 million, is sceptical of any risk of community action blocking the mining.

“Any appeal to the Environment Court is likely to come from a small number of local residents, who are not well-resourced and will not have comprehensive technical reports to the same extent as Plaman Global would have.”

In the past there has been minimal mining done at the site. Scientists had a collaborative relationship with owners and have even named fossils after them.

Plaman Resources has been allowing scientists on the site, however, if the mine is completely excavated there will be nothing for scientists to find.

Scientist Daphne Lee commissioned an ecologist and illustrator to recreate the flora and fauna at the site based on leaves, insects and fish fossils which been found to date. Illustration: Dr Paula Peeters

Helen Clark said she thinks trade-off between what the mine is worth in knowledge and what it’s worth financially “doesn’t stack up”.

“When I see something like this I always think, this would just be so disappointing if New Zealand let destruction of a site go, never, ever to be reclaimed again for some transient, relatively low value mining operation.

Clark, a former Minister of Conservation, said she’s surprised the site isn’t a scientific reserve.

Scientific reserves are created to protect and preserve areas which have scientific importance. The criteria in the Reserves Act for scientific importance include “geomorphological phenomena”.

“That would require the community that is very concerned about this going to DoC start a process.”

Securing the land as a scientific reserve would require the government either to purchase it from the owners or agree on a land swap.

The land was sold to Plaman Resources limited in 2015 for around $650,000, however, the company spent more than $5 million purchasing the mining operation from the previous owner. 

Dr Nic Rawlence, the director of Otago University’s paleogenetics laboratory is one of a growing number of scientists who fear the loss of the site.

He was shocked at the news of the potential destruction of 120,000 years worth of fossils.

“The company doesn’t seem to care about science or scientific discoveries. We’re talking about a site that is on par with the Messel Pit, in Germany, that’s a major world heritage site.”

Since Friday a Wikipedia page has been created to help share information on the many important finds made at the site. Rawlence said an online petition would be started shortly to try to stop the Overseas Investment Office approving the sale of a neighbouring farm to the mine. That land would improve the viability of the mining operation.

He was also looking into the idea suggested to him by Helen Clark to push for the land to be protected as a scientific reserve, as well as options under the Resource Management Act.

“Do we value science and research, or do we just want to a quick dollar from a low value pit?”

Local residents Andrea Bosshard and Shane Loader have led a campaign to raise awareness of the likely impacts of the mine on the Middlemarch community.

A weekend meeting attracted 30 locals from the small town.

While the potential dust and truck traffic from the mine was top of mind for many, Bosshard said she had the feeling from attendees they valued what was in the maar.

“The discovery of the moa fossil footprints from Kyeburn, which is just up the road from here, was a real sense of well, what else is in the maar?”

Loader said the meeting discussed behaviour of company staff and claims made to locals around road changes for the 216 truck movements a day which would mean “you wouldn’t even notice the trucks’”.

“I got a feeling it was a consensus in the room that the mine was not the development that we want to see.

“People value what’s already in Middlemarch. They value the quiet, the cycle trail, the dark skies … it was the concept of the heritage of the place being of value rather than any extraction industry.”

Another meeting is planned in a few weeks and opponents hope to form a society to fight the proposal.

“Our argument is that what should be out there is a permanent research site attached to the geology department. That would bring scientists from all over the world and that would be a much more sustainable, economic thing for the local community than this mine, which will be gone in 25, 27 years. That’s if it lasts that long,” said Loader.

The mine is expected to create around 100 jobs during its forecast 27-year life-span.

Clark isn’t convinced the economic benefits are worth it.

“It just doesn’t stack up. It’s a question of values. Do we value knowledge? Do we value natural heritage? Do we value science and research, or do we just want to a quick dollar from a low value pit? I mean, really, it’s distressing.”

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