A bid to expand a controversial Canterbury coal mine is off to a stuttering start. David Williams reports.

Brian Deans’ family lived relatively quietly at Coalgate until coal started being trucked past their gate.

The pioneering Pākehā family, who were among Canterbury’s earliest European settlers, farm sheep, cattle and forests over about 550 hectares in the Malvern Hills, about an hour west of Christchurch.

Twenty years ago, an open-cast coal mine was approved nearby which, since 2013, has been owned by Bathurst Resources, a listed Australian company majority owned by Singaporean investors. (Several old mines sit within its footprint, including Victory, Nimmo, Big Mine and Little Mine.)

“Before the mine was there it was a beautiful, peaceful valley to live in, and now it’s changed – it has a huge impact,” Deans says. He reckons about 80,000 tonnes of coal is trucked past their gate every year. Official estimates are higher, at 100,000-130,000 tonnes.

And that’s where the trouble starts.

Complaints about the increase in coal trucks, especially on gravelled rural roads, sparked greater scrutiny on operations at what’s known as Canterbury Coal Mine. According to council reports, the mine is operating outside its permitted footprint, extracting more coal than allowed, and has breached a series of consent conditions, including for vehicle movements.

(Richard Tacon, Bathurst’s Wellington-based chief executive, says via email: “We believe we are operating within our consented footprint and that we are meeting or exceeding all of the existing conditions of those consents.”)

In 2017, Bathurst was issued 27 infringement notices, and fined $20,250, for unauthorised sediment runoff into the Waianiwaniwa River. The company was fined a further $18,000 and convicted by the district court for carelessly allowing sediment-laden water to enter Bush Gully Stream in 2018. Bathurst had asked for a discharge without conviction, as it was worried, as an overseas-owned company, a conviction would affect its ability to own “sensitive” land.

(Canterbury’s regional council, ECan, tried to withdraw the charges after Bathurst agreed, in an “alternative justice process”, to pay $50,000 to fence a section of the stream, which provides habitat for the critically endangered Canterbury mudfish. The district court declined ECan’s application, and expressed concern at the council’s failure to assess the actual or potential effects of the sediment on the mudfish population.)

Now, Bathurst has submitted new consents to ECan and Selwyn District Council which could lift the mine’s maximum annual coal production from 20,000 tonnes per annum to 185,000 tonnes, serviced by up to 320 heavy vehicle movements a week. (The coal powers driers in dairy factories, turning milk into milk powder, a huge export earner for the country.)

Together, the councils have appointed independent commissioners to hear all consents.

Anti-coal activist Cindy Baxter, Coal Action Network Aotearoa, says Bathurst should be made to withdraw its latest applications, and work within its existing mining footprint.

“Allowing a coal company with a proven history of pollution like Bathurst to expand its coal mine to feed Fonterra’s dirty coal boilers isn’t exactly what Aotearoa should be doing in a climate emergency – it’s the opposite of a nuclear-free moment.”

Deans, the farmer, has his concerns, including night operations at the mine, and he plans to speak at next year’s consent hearing. (His written submission, emailed in May, contained no comments, saying simply, “I want to be heard”.)

However, he says the mine is enacting a raft of measures to mitigate the adverse effects, such as imposing speed limits on trucks and watering the road to limit dust.

“We have a very good relationship with the mine, with the mine manager, and we discuss these concerns,” he says. “We have pretty good input into anything they do.”

“The activity and what is being applied for is not entirely clear due to lack of information or conflicting or consuming information being provided.” – Janette Dovey

The latest twist in the mine consenting saga came last Monday, when hearing commissioners issued their first minute.

They refused to deal with a “preliminary matter” raised by Bathurst and ECan, about the extent of the mine’s consented area and the permitted baseline of operations.

Regional councils determine whether consents are required, and their scope and extent, hearing panel chair Sharon McGarry wrote. If Bathurst disagreed it should seek a declaration from the Environment Court.

Next year’s hearing, a date for which hasn’t been set, will be the culmination of four years of Bathurst butting heads with authorities. According to Selwyn’s council, the company had to be pushed – including the use of an abatement notice – into lodging a consent application for increased vehicle movements, which it finally did in early 2018.

Since then, consultant planner Janette Dovey has delved into the company’s consents. In a 93-page report, completed in March, which recommended Bathurst’s latest applications be publicly notified (they were), Dovey sets out the discrepancies.

She says significant effects – retrospective, current and future – are happening, or potentially will happen, affecting daytime quietness, night-time darkness, rural landscape and cultural values, and ecological values and qualities.

In plain language, the mine’s – actually or potentially – too loud, too bright at night, too nakedly jarring in a rural landscape, and culturally and ecologically damaging to wetlands and waterways. Some of those effects have been deemed “significant”, while others, especially at one of the Deans family-owned houses, could be “major”.

The list of district plan breaches is long – the nature and scale of mining activities, vehicle movements, earthworks and setbacks from waterways, non-consented buildings, outdoor signs, hazardous substances, indigenous vegetation clearance, and waste disposal.

Some of the district council’s experts hold serious concerns about existing operations, while, to be fair, in some cases it’s thought potential effects could be mitigated.

According to Dovey, getting information out of Bathurst to understand the existing effects and the implications of what’s proposed has been “unusually difficult”. The Selwyn District Council has been deluged with reports and information from Bathurst, but the answers to certain questions remain unanswered.

“The activity and what is being applied for is not entirely clear due to lack of information or conflicting or consuming information being provided,” says Dovey, a planner for 26 years.

To fill some of the information gaps, she dug into the Selwyn council archives and Bathurst’s consent application documents to ECan. “This should not have been necessary.”

The council recognised Bathurst has provided “significant assistance” and requests for information led to “some more information” being provided, “to varying degrees of detail”. Dovey: “But there are still a number of areas where basic information is still required.”

An example of the “difficulties in obtaining information” is a request for a waterbodies plan.

The council wanted to know what waterbodies were on the 100-hectare site in 2013, when Bathurst took over, what’s there now, and where they are. Without it, the council can’t say if waterbody setback rules are being adhered to and how future work might affect indigenous vegetation.

Despite several requests, such a plan wasn’t provided. The council decided not to push it, saying “it was clear at this point that the applicant would not provide the information requested”.

Bathurst provided surface water plans to ECan – in a bundle of applications that will be considered at the same hearing – but they don’t match other plans, exactly. There was also a new vegetation plan, which identifies “significantly more wetlands”.

The council’s consultant ecologist, Mark Davis, doesn’t think all waterbodies have been clearly identified and wetlands surveyed, so only a partial assessment was possible. Still, he determined the adverse ecological effects were “significant”, with many occurring since 2013. Contamination of aquatic habitats is already likely to be “severe”. Of particular concern is the Tara Wetland/Stream.

Councils played off against each other?

Another interesting aspect was the different information in council consents.

While the district council has allowed coal extraction of up to 20,000 tonnes a year, ECan’s water discharges were for annual coal production of 170,000 tonnes. Waste rock totals in the respective consents were listed as greater than 150,000 tonnes and greater than 850,000 tonnes.

(Bathurst’s work programme shows it would expose 60,000 tonnes of coal in 2013, rising to 135,000 tonnes in 2018. Selwyn’s council is responsible for monitoring the mine’s coal extraction.)

The mine has had acidity issues since late 2012, Dovery’s report said.

In 2015, Bathurst said there was potentially acid-forming rock from the mine’s south-west extension. However, it’s now apparent these results, from October 2014, were from the mine’s current pit. Dovey said the worst-case scenario was the operation may have had to cease until the issues were fixed.

Acidity problems in the Tara Wetland may still be an issue, Dovey said, because samples aren’t taken from the discharge point, but 75 metres away, where the wetland meets the stream.

On vehicle movements, Dovey said the permitted baseline was 60 equivalent car movements a day – that’s 60 car movements, 20 truck movements or 10 truck-and-trailer unit movements. “The increase from the baselines to a maximum of 320 movements per week will be noticeable, although I recognise that this does not automatically make it adverse.”

Compartmentalised assessments of noise, vibration and visual effects from increased truck traffic just won’t do, Dovey said – they are parts of the whole. She’d prefer to wrap the elements together into a broader picture of how an increase would affect “people’s appreciation of the pleasantness and aesthetic coherence of this particular area”.

Selwyn council’s group manager of environmental and regulatory services Tim Harris says via email: “There are still requests for information that have not yet been addressed by the applicant.

He confirms consent costs are paid by the applicant, but won’t provide an amount in case it’s commercially sensitive.

Bathurst boss Tacon says: “We don’t agree that we have been anything other than co-operative and forthcoming in the consenting process and the mine has been subject to a number of regulatory visits and reviews.

“We have made all the applications and these are publicly available. Everyone has had an opportunity to submit.”

The consenting process has been complex, he says. “We do have to be very careful about not entering into a ‘he said, she said’ debate with either council or external parties.”

Tacon says Bathurst sought legal advice from a QC, which confirmed the company’s view it did not require further land use consents from the Selwyn council. “However we agreed as part of the abatement notice proceedings that we would make the applications the council wished (reserving our position as to the legal position as per the advice).”

The goal, Tacon says, is to satisfy the “council’s wants”, while continuing to operate a “very small mine” to meet the demands of its customers. “We are in the process of agreeing the hearings timetable with the councils and expect that will be announced shortly.”

In August last year, Bathurst subsidiary Bathurst Coal Ltd got Overseas Investment Office approval to buy a 31.5-hectares lifestyle property on Bush Gully Rd from Nelson and Suzanne North, for $680,000, in the hope of mining it in the future.

A range of views

Ecology and climate change loom large in submissions on the Bathurst consents.

The Department of Conservation opposes the consents being granted. Its submission, penned by North Canterbury operations manager Kingsley Timpson, on behalf of director-general Lou Sanson, says the mine proposal doesn’t adequately address potential adverse effects on habitat for indigenous species, including Canterbury mudfish, and significant wetlands.

Extinction Rebellion Ōtautahi Christchurch’s Torfrida Wainwright noted ECan declared a climate emergency last year. “To now allow the expansion of coal mining in your rohe for another 20-30 years makes a mockery of the intent of such a declaration.”

Environmental Defence Society’s Cordelia Woodhouse said Bathurst’s non-compliance is significant, which “calls into question whether it can be trusted to adhere to consent conditions going forward”.

Nicky Snoyink, of conservation lobby group Forest & Bird, suggested to grant the consents would be to reward Bathurst’s bad behaviour. The submission questioned how well the current consents had been monitored by ECan and Selwyn council.

Baxter, of Coal Action Network Aotearoa, says there’s a nationwide problem with consent monitoring. Bathurst’s own maps show it’s been breaching consent conditions “to billyo”. “I think the mine should be shut down, to be honest.”

Not everyone agrees.

Darfield Motel’s submission says “Bathurst Coal has a lot of staff that stay with the Darfield Motel. We greatly value their business. Without Bathurst Coal in the region our business would struggle to survive.”

Westport chartered accountants FT Dooley Ltd provides payroll services to Bathurst. Its submission, written by Rochelle Crossman, says the outcome of the application could affect its business.

“Bathurst Resources Ltd have made considerable investment in rural communities throughout New Zealand and its contribution to the economy of the Buller region is significant. This resource consent would strengthen and secure the future of Bathurst Coal Ltd’s Canterbury mine operations and contribute to the group’s wider New Zealand operations.”

Coalgate farmer Deans, one of the most affected parties, is hot under the collar. But his rage is directed mainly at the Resource Management Act (RMA). He notes Bathurst’s consent application is 800 pages long. (It’s actually a slightly skinnier 700 pages.)  

“This is not a 180-storey high-rise building on unstable ground, it’s an open-cast coal mine,” he says. “Does the Bible have 800 pages?” (Newsroom can report it does – the New International Version has 1370 pages.)

Deans goes on: “The RMA, in my opinion it’s an absolute crock of shit, to put it mildly. It’s completely failed. It’s been here for 30 years. It’s become a feeding frenzy for consultants, lawyers and parasites. It’s failed in its intent.”

The three hearing commissioners are “just messengers”, he says, but his attitude hardens. “They’re just parasites. What do they know about it? Do they know anything about quarrying or open-cast coal mining? Nothing, I’d suggest.”

As a farmer, Deans is no fan of regulations, especially new freshwater rules. He is quick to point out which industries are keeping the country afloat financially now that international tourism’s been halted by the Covid-19 pandemic. So it’s no surprise, perhaps, his personal concerns about the mine are trumped by his economic leanings, and a deep suspicion of being told what to do (especially by “idiot bureaucrats”).

The coalfields in the Malvern Hills have been mined since 1872, through 87 opencast or underground mines. The way Deans is talking, he expects mining to be around for a while longer.

He recalls a meeting about Canterbury Coal Mine organised by “some greenie”.

“It was a bit of a joke. They want to close this mine down. I said to them, well, so, if you close this mine down you do understand the carbon footprint will probably be double or treble because they’ll be carting the coal from Ohai in Southland and the West Coast?”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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