Mining decisions in the Coromandel have disappointed conservationists and exposed cracks in coalition relations

Coromandel locals opposed to mining in their region faced another blow after the High Court ruled against a judicial review of a decision allowing an Australian mining company to purchase land for a tailings dam.

This disappointment followed an August decision to allow mining in conservation land near Whangamata.

The court decision related to an Oceana Gold purchase of 178 hectares of farm land in Waihi for a tailings dam. It said the extra storage was needed in order for the mine to continue operating in the future. 

Green MP and Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage initially declined the purchase application, but a second application was made which Labour’s Associate Finance Minister David Parker and Finance Minister Grant Robertson both approved. 

Martha Hill Mine in Waihi. Photo: Andy king50 CC BY-SA 3.0

Former Green MP and chairperson of Coromandel Watchdog of Hauraki, the group that took the case to the High Court, Catherine Delahunty called the overturning of Sage’s decision by the Labour ministers “sabotage”.

“Eugenie Sage made a wise decision citing risks from toxic waste, climate change effects and the lack of longer term economic benefits to the region. We welcomed that decision as a recognition that assessing benefits obviously means assessing detriments.”

The group is disappointed at the court’s decision “but we are proud we challenged the Labour Ministers for their failure to protect our environment”. 

“Under this Government since 2017 – three years – there’s been a whole lot of mining activity, but none of the strategies we understood the Government was going to employ – none of them – have happened. They haven’t fixed the Crown Minerals Act that promotes mining, they haven’t extended Schedule 4 and they haven’t banned mining on conservation land.”

Since 2017’s Speech from the Throne, access arrangements, which allow miners to use DoC land, have been approved for 15 new mines and variations to existing Access Arrangements have been approved for 21 mines on conservation land. 

Wharekirauponga and Archey’s frogs

In early August, the Coromandel Watchdog group called a decision by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to allow mining in conservation land near Whangamata an “utter betrayal”.

It’s another issue where the Labour Party and Green Party appear at odds, with the Green Party saying it “condemns” the decision. Co-leader Marama Davidson said the party had worked hard to implement the commitment of no new mines on conservation land. It also attempted to secure greater protection for areas of the Coromandel by increasing the area under Schedule 4 protection. It was a policy the Labour Party campaigned on on 2014 and 2017, but then failed to support, leaving the Greens as the sole supporter.

Labour’s pre-election manifesto. Image source: 2017 Labour conservation manifesto

“It is clear that if New Zealanders want to protect precious conservation areas from being dug up by miners that they need to ensure there is a stronger Green voice in the next government,” said Davidson.

“Even when you have mining underneath conservation land – there are still risks to local flora and fauna, and a risk of subsidence.”

Mining in the conservation land at Wharekirauponga is likely to be underground.

The distinction between “on” or “under” is one that is becoming an issue. Mines under conservation land may be invisible, but there’s still a chance there could be effects on the species living there.

“We’re at the beginning of this battle of needing people to understand that underground mining has toxic waste products, it puts waterways, it affects aquifers and it’s going to affect the above ground habitat of wildlife,” said Delahunty

One of the effects she worries about is vibrations. Waihi locals affected by mining vibrations are regularly paid compensation by the Oceana Gold. 

“You can’t give money to a frog.”

The frog Delahunty is referring to is the endangered Archey’s frog. It’s only found in three places in New Zealand, including the conservation land Oceana Gold hopes to mine.

It’s University of Otago zoologist professor Phil Bishop’s favourite New Zealand’s frog.

“Often we think of New Zealand frogs being little boring brown frogs, but these guys can have really bright greens, bright oranges, reds. Earlier this year, before we went into lockdown, someone found a blue one.”

Bishop said underground mining might not affect the frogs at all but if it affected the hydrology of the area it could be devastating.

“Then basically all the places where the frogs live will dry out, and it’ll be much greater than affecting the frogs. It’ll affect the forest, the trees, ferns, and the smaller plants – any animals that live in that forest. That’s why I think Oceana has got to be very careful, and they have to prove that their mining is not going to affect the hydrology of the surface layers.”

Archey’s frogs don’t move much. It’s thought during a 30-year lifespan the frogs could stay within a 2m radius. Bishop said a student was currently using radio transmitters to try to determine whether this observation, based on finding frogs in the same location year-after-year, is correct.

With the frogs not being fans of moving far, a change to their habitat could be something they are unable to deal with.

One attempt to translocate Archey’s frogs has been made but Bishop said the jury was still out on whether it’s been a success.

What’s next

The mining permit isn’t all the company needs to mine. An access arrangement from the Department of Conservation will be required, as well as consent under the Resource Management Act. 

For this mine, Oceana Gold has said it plans to tunnel under the DoC land from private land. This would mean there’s no surface mining conservation land aside from ventilation shafts.

Its fact sheet on underground mining says: “We believe our approach, which rules out surface mining and enters underground from the land off the conservation estate, will work within the Government’s ‘no new mines on conservation land’ policy, as we understand it.”

What’s happened to the promise?

On Thursday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the reason for the delay in the no new mines on conservation land promise becoming rules is because stewardship land has not yet been classified.

“One of the things we have been working through, and has taken a little bit of time to work through, has been the difference between conservation and stewardship land.”

Stewardship land was allocated to DoC to administer in 1987 when the agency was formed and was supposed to be reclassified based on its conservation values. 

Thirty-three years on and only 100,000 hectares have been reclassified. Currently over 2.5 million hectares – a third of all land managed by DoC – still waits for reclassification.

DoC’s website says a common misconception is stewardship land is not held for conservation purposes and is not protected in the same way as other conservation land: “This is not true.”

The Green Party’s Davidson cited coalition difficulties as a reason for the delay.

“Unfortunately the three parties in Government have been unable to reach agreement.”

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