A former mining company director demands Newsroom take down a story on rehabilitation conditions agreed with DoC for a former site on conservation land

National leader Judith Collins’ husband is threatening defamation action against Newsroom over a story about a West Coast mine site that the conservation department allowed to be left in a state likened to a “moonscape” by a conservationist.

David Wong-Tung, a director of the mining company involved until June 30, when he resigned, claims the story outlining criticisms of DoC’s amendment of site restoration conditions for the Mikonui site, defames him and wants it pulled from Newsroom.co.nz and to be given an apology.

A letter from his lawyer, Kate Davenport, QC, wrongly claims the Newsroom story did not report that the Mikonui site on the West Coast had previously been mined by another company, which created some of the pit and landscape shown in a March 2020 photo. In fact, the story directly quoted a DoC local staff member saying the area had been “previously mined”.

The June 2 story reported DoC had agreed to reduced rehabilitation conditions from those it and the miner NZG had previously signed up to when access to the conservation estate site was agreed.

Wong-Tung claims criticisms by a West Coast Conservation Board member, Neil Silverwood, who visited the land and told Newsroom “the topsoil is not there”, defame him. He was one of four directors of NZG when Newsroom published the mine story, but Companies Office records show he stood down as of June 30.

Judith Collins with husband David Wong-Tung. Photo: Getty Images

The other directors of NZG Ltd are James Blackwell, Stone Shi and Julia Xu. The latter two and Wong-Tung were also directors of the company Oravida NZ, at a time that that business was central to controversy involving Collins when she was a minister in the Key government. Wong-Tung stood down from the board of Oravida NZ in 2017.

In the Newsroom article, a DoC acting district manager, Suvi Van Smit, had countered Silverwood’s topsoil criticism, by saying “topsoil was spread, more than half of the site was covered in topsoil. There was not enough topsoil stockpiled to cover the whole site due to the area being previously mined, which reduced the available topsoil.”

The letter claims Wong-Tung was defamed by Newsroom quoting correctly from the mine “access arrangement” with DoC that it was a 22 ha site. The document says: “The permit holder will have access to 22.20 hectares of public conservation land for Mining and Mining operations.”

Davenport writes that approximately nine hectares had never been mined and just two hectares had been mined for gold, with six to eight hectares used for water management and resource storage. Wong-Tung says the article implies NZG had been responsible for all land clearance and the appearance of the entire site. 

DoC told Newsroom in the story that original rehabilitation conditions the parties had signed were changed after a discussion with the mining company. It said the changes were documented and an experienced team involved in the decisions to allow them. 

Van Smit said in the story that re-contouring did take place and a “natural landform was achieved” but the hole, which she described as a “mine pond” was left because it was impractical to fill it in.

A condition to replant the area with up to 5000 plants a hectare was waived as DoC agreed natural regeneration and weed control would be the best approach.

Wong-Tung does not accept the focus of the article was DoC’s waiving of the restoration conditions but claims it implies he and NZG are in breach. However the article repeatedly says DoC signed off on the new conditions and expressly that “our records show no mining companies have left sites that have not been rehabilitated to the satisfaction of the Department of Conservation on public conservation land in the West Coast area”.

His lawyer’s letter says NZG paid more than $200,000 to re-contour the area and “create a more natural ‘rolling’ landscape to the satisfaction of the Department and the regional council”.

Davenport writes that if Newsroom does not retract the story and apologise “I am instructed … my client retains all his legal remedies (including an application for takedown orders in advance of substantive defamation proceedings).” 

However, Newsroom is satisfied the story accurately reflects DoC’s change of conditions for the rehabilitation and that the remaining matters it required to be done by NZG, other than yet-to-be-completed weeding over a 12-month period, had been done. No retraction or apology are warranted.

In November 2017 it was announced there would be no new mines on conservation land. This promise has not come to fruition. A public discussion document on the proposed ban on mining on conservation land was supposed to be released in September 2018. 

The Otago Daily Times reported West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O’Connor saying the “no new mines” policy had been parked ahead of the September election as there was “a hell of a lot” of work to do and not enough time to complete it. 

The Minister of Conservation, Eugenie Sage, told Newsroom in March there was no due date.

* This story has been updated to record Wong-Tung’s resignation as a director, on June 30, from NZG Ltd.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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