Blogger: Forest & Bird’s South Island Field Officer, Debs Martin
My first visit to the Stockton and Denniston Plateaux was in January 2006 when I went with a crew of Forest & Birders to support the commencement of the 3 year long occupation of Happy Valley to stop a planned extension of Solid Energy’s opencast coal mine.
I’ve been back many times since then … initially I was filled with hope as we shouldered in a yurt for the winter, and eventually with sadness, as Forest & Bird’s excellent case to the Environment Court wasn’t upheld, and our last ditch efforts to save the valley vanished.
Five years on and I’m back again. This time I’m not leaving until we’ve saved the nationally important landscapes and habitats of the Denniston and remainder of Stockton Plateau. Well, I’m actually not there literally – but my heart is.
At the start of June, Buller Coal Ltd – aka Bathurst Resources Ltd – a large Australian mining company, opened its resource consent case in Westport – to opencast mine 6.1 million tonnes of coal off the Denniston Plateau.
Our first reaction was to reject the proposal outright – not only because of the greenhouse gas emissions (~16 million tonnes of CO2) which I’ll touch on later, but also because the Denniston Plateau was public conservation land and home to many threatened species (read: kiwi, geckos, freshwater crayfish) and unusual communities.
Being open-minded, Forest & Bird listened to the company and considered whether there could be some gains for the environment if we allowed this proposal to proceed by reaping mitigation efforts in terms of predator control and protection on other areas of the plateau. That thought soon went away when we investigated what was really at stake.
Firstly, although the mine consent was only to be for 12 years, they wanted to put up a large coal processing plant, pipelines, and train yard for a period of 35 years. Concerned? Yes, especially after we found the company had plans to mine the rest of the plateau (having bought out all but one of the mining consents) and mine parts even further afield. A small portion of the plateau has no or little coal – and they offered that to us as a token reserve.
Their plans are to eventually mine between 73 -176 million tonnes of coal (depending on ‘proving’ the reserves) which will pump between 160 – 420 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. This at a time when our global climate is at a critical tipping point and international climate change scientists, such as Dr James Hansen, are urging governments to keep the coal in the ground.
Then they kept saying that although the site was significant for its complex variety of ecosystems – they could replace them with post-mining rehabilitation. Wrong again. Their own experts have stated the complexity of ecosystems cannot be replaced – and only a simplified version would remain. The whole ‘promise’ was starting to look very doubtful.
After Solid Energy’s disastrous attempts to relocate our giant carnivorous worm-slurping snail – Powelliphanta augusta (see video below), we’re especially wary of translocation attempts of Powelliphanta patrickensis because we know these species have very specific habitat requirements.
The company has argued Powelliphanta patrickensis are found elsewhere throughout the plateaux. So with translocation efforts deemed futile, they now hope any snails in the mine area will survive by digging up a whole lot of the existing vegetation and moving it elsewhere along with the snails.
They’ve conveniently ignored the fact that the plateau and mine area is home to some of the highest concentrations of Powelliphanta patrickensis. For us, that is simply not a good enough outcome for a nationally endangered species.
After this ineffective effort, they sent tracking dogs to sniff out the great spotted kiwi and after several kiwi foraging on the plateau scurried off over the escarpment – Bathurst concluded the habitat wasn’t important for kiwi after all. No ecologist worth their pinch of salt would assert that because they ran off to hide the plateau wasn’t important habitat for them! Now it was all starting to look almost farcical.
Their surveys for fauna were so incomprehensive they missed even bothering to assess whether our freshwater crayfish (koura), weta, or any other invertebrates were present. After all, they commented, Powelliphanta patrickensis are an indicator species, and we’ll know enough from there!!! It’s entirely unsatisfactory to Forest & Bird that they don’t even know the species that they may destroy through mining.
But the icing on the cake came when they offered up their mitigation for the destruction of the habitat and fauna living within it … they were going to do predator control and it was going to be GREAT!
First principle of predator control is – does predator control replace loss of habitat? Not when it is the habitat that’s the limiting factor, rather than predation. In other words, the levels of predation on the area proposed for predator control were low on the higher altitudes. Yes, some predation was evidenced at lower altitude – in a very small area. But the crunch and irony of it is that Animal Health Board is already doing predator control there anyway. So there is no gain and the habitat is lost.
Ah, they said, but we’ve got an even bigger gift for you. We’re doing comprehensive predator and herbivore control within a known area of snails and kiwi … Kahurangi National Park. A little bit of digging by F&B and we find that DOC has been running this predator control programme since the mid 90s. I find it hard to understand the gain here either … unless there’s some secret discussions going on with DOC that we’re not aware of …
Enter Department of Conservation: Missing in Action. DOC was not at the hearing, despite it being public conservation land. Their reasoning: they can deal with the problems of mining through the access and concession arrangements. Fair enough, but is it because of the DOC cuts? Is it because they have been told that mining should now be welcomed on conservation land (outside Schedule 4 of course)? Is it because they now have to accept ‘pay off money’ from mining companies just to run pest control programmes on conservation estate? The plot thickens … and its looking very lumpy.
We’re then left wondering what deals (and dollars) Bathurst are waving in front of DOC’s nose, and at what price we sell out our conservation estate – our threatened species and unique habitats. Are the concepts of “off-setting” and “net conservation gain” going to be so thoroughly undermined that developers funding merely replaces current DOC funding streams? In the face of DOC cuts of $54 million to their budget and the loss of 102 jobs, isn’t the Government paving the way for such a sell off to occur?
So we await to see if the mighty economic dollar will rule over protection of nationally outstanding ecosystems, historically rare sandstone pavements and boulder-fields, expansive wetlands, and habitats for diverse and as yet – undiscovered – species.
It shouldn’t, but in the current political climate, I’m not banking on that.
Join up and become a Denniston Reserve supporter, and help us to save this place from mining.