New Zealand Court Approves Coal Mine in Kiwi Territory

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, May 26, 2005 (ENS) - The New Zealand Environment Court has rejected the appeal of the nation's largest environmental group and two others against a new open pit coal mine on the South Island in the Upper Waimangaroa Valley. The appeal was based on the harm the groups say mining will do in the unprotected wild area inhabited by a subspecies of New Zealand's vanishing national bird, the kiwi.

The Cypress Opencast Mine, which now has a green light, will be built between Denniston and Granity in the Buller District of the West Coast by Solid Energy. The state owned enterprise operates as a commercial company but with only one shareholder - the New Zealand government.

Solid Energy says the company now expects to start developing the new mine later this year and for coal extraction to begin in late 2006.

The Environment Court heard appeals by the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, the Buller Conservation Group and Te Runanga of Ngati Waewae against the resource consents granted to Solid Energy in June 2004 by the Buller District and West Coast Regional Councils.

Calling the ruling "a dismal one for conservation," Forest and Bird field officer Eugenie Sage said, “The Court has relied heavily on Solid Energy’s promises to be a good environmental manager, but we don’t share the Court’s confidence in Solid Energy."

She said the company has a track record of "causing severe environmental damage and making promises that it doesn’t keep."

The company has promised to use mining and waste disposal practices that it says will cause minimal harm to the Upper Waimangaroa Valley.

Elder

Don Elder is chief executive officer for Solid Energy. (Photo courtesy Solid Energy)
Solid Energy Chief Executive, Dr. Don Elder, says, “We stand by our commitment to develop and operate this new mine using environmental best practice and in particular to minimize the impacts of mining on the indigenous flora and fauna, particularly the great spotted kiwi and the land snail powelliphanta patrickensis."

Even a small mine centred in the Upper Waimangaroa would require access roads and other facilities that would devastate the core of this remarkable area, the conservationists say.

“The mine will destroy habitat used by 13 threatened species, including great spotted kiwi and the endemic land snail Powelliphanta patrickensis, Sage said. "It will create a 250 ha scar in the distinctive landscape of the Upper Waimangaroa Valley with its mosaic of rock pavements, wetlands, and stunted vegetation."

Solid Energy has pledged to undertake extensive predator control around the mine site for the 30 year life of the mine for the benefit of the kiwi, a ground dwelling bird that is vulnerable to predators.

bird

The most ancient of New Zealand's birds, the flightless kiwi is related to the ostrich and the emu. (Photo courtesy NZ Department of Conservation)
Expert evidence presented to the Environment Court by Solid Energy showed that this predator control program will enable kiwi and snail populations in the area to increase with an overall net conservation gain in the number of animals that will be present at the end of 30 years.

The company plans to remove 12 hectares of red tussock wetlands and bring it back for use in rehabilitation of the site at the end of mining, and to move the land snails to a 17 hectare preserve.

But Sage says the company's proposals to move the land snails, potentially shift kiwi to a new site, dig up and then re-establish 12 hectares of red tussock wetlands are "unproven and uncertain of success.”

“Implementing the consent conditions relies on comprehensive monitoring and enforcement by the West Coast Regional Council and the Buller District Council, which given the Councils’ scant resources and limited staff is unlikely," said Sage.

Solid Energy expects to start developing the new mine later this year and for coal extraction to commence in late 2006, the company said in a statement today.

About five million metric tons of coal will be mined in two opencast pits covering 105 hectares (260 acres).

Buller

The Upper Waimangaroa Valley, at the heart of the coal plateaux, is today largely free of roads and mine workings. (Photo courtesy Forest & Bird)
A further 155 hectares (383 acres) will be used for overburden disposal, roads, water treatment facilities and associated infrastructure. Vegetation and soils will be stockpiled at the start of mining for use in progressive rehabilitation of the site and for final rehabilitation and monitoring at the end of mine life.

The court's decision demonstrates "the failure of the Resource Management Act to protect endangered species," Sage said.

Numbers of great spotted kiwi are dwindling. In 1998, there were about 11,000 pairs, and they are down to fewer than 17,000 adults today. Great spotted kiwi prefer wet, mossy, sub-alpine vegetation. They live in three discrete population areas, often at high altitudes. One group is found from Northwest Nelson to the Buller River near where the new mine is planned.

“Promises of predator control over 1000 hectares for 20 to 30 years cannot compensate for the permanent loss of threatened species habitat, and the high pollution risk of acid mine drainage from millions of tonnes of waste rock,” said Sage.

Elder told the Environment Court that the planned mine is a key part of the company's strategy to ensure consistent supply to its export markets which included coals for specialists uses and coking coal for steel making.

That argument does not sit well with the conservationists. “The Cypress mine highlights the huge environmental cost and unsustainability of coal mining," said Sage. "It involves destroying the habitat of endangered species found only in New Zealand and polluting local rivers, to provide jobs for imported overseas coal miners, and coking coal for Japanese and Korean steel mills that exacerbate climate change."