Conflict of values

How much are nationally significant ecoystems on the Denniston Plateau worth? Jolene Williams looks at a deal offered by Bathurst Resources that the Conservation Minister says is good value.

Top of the South Field Officer, Debs Martin with Conservation Minister, Nick Smith

Top of the South Field Officer, Debs Martin with Conservation Minister, Nick Smith

May 23 was a sad day for Forest & Bird’s Save Denniston campaign.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith granted mining company Bathurst Resources the access arrangements necessary for it to continue its bid to develop a mine on Denniston Plateau at an event high on the plateau witnessed by a small group of our hardy supporters.

As part of the deal Bathurst offered a $22 million compensation package. Some of it would be spent offsetting environmental damage on the plateau but most would fund pest control in the Heaphy area, 100 kilometres up the road.

Access arrangements outline the conditions in which activities can be carried out. Without them, Bathurst would not be able to forge ahead with its mining plans.

It is hugely disappointing for Forest & Bird that the Minister of Conservation gave approval to destroy what his own department identifies as “nationally significant ecosystems”.

Dr Smith lauds the deal as “the largest-ever compensation package” negotiated by the Department of Conservation for a mine or other commercial venture.

He says the deal will bring “more conservation benefits” than will be lost.

His decision won’t affect the Environment Court’s decision about whether or not the mine will go ahead. But it certainly shows the government is willing to sacrifice our
precious areas to foreign mining companies if the price is right.

Forest & Bird and others believe the Minister’s decision was about politics not conservation.

Forest & Bird’s Save Denniston spokesperson, Debs Martin, points out that the law prevents the Minister from taking a development’s economic factors into account when considering access arrangements.

“The Environment Court stressed that the case for the mine was ‘finely balanced’ under the RMA,” Debs says. “If you take the economic benefits out of the equation then our logical conclusion is that the Minister can only say no when making the an access decision under the Crown Minerals Act,” she says.

Furthermore, Dr Smith’s decision lies in contrast to the ecological advice of his own department. DOC’s 246-page report on Bathurst’s application for access arrangements (dated May 6, 2013) does not make an explicit recommendation to decline or accept Bathurst’s application.

But it states the application is “inconsistent” with objectives of the Conservation Act. It goes on to note it is “particularly concerned” about losses to the plateau’s natural and historic resources.

Most disturbing, it says that the existing extent of disturbance may have already reached “a balance point” where it is no longer possible to preserve a viable
representative sample of the plateau’s nationally significant ecosystems. Any further mining, it says, may pass the point of no return.

In essence, the Environment Court has a make it or break it decision in its hands.

Forest & Bird’s Save Denniston team was particularly frustrated by Dr Smith’s depiction of the plateau in his written decision and media statements. He describes the
plateau as bearing the scars of historic mining, roads, bulldozed tracks and the spread of weeds.

He ignores the fact that such modifications represent less than 5 per cent of the footprint, and in DOC’s own words, the vegetation is “predominantly intact” and “largely unmodified”.

There’s no reference either to the numerous critically endangered species that inhabit the mine footprint.

He then emphasises the plateau is stewardship land and therefore has the “lowest legal status” of DOC-protected land.

Dr Smith doesn’t explain that stewardship land is effectively a holding pen for land not yet classified by DOC.

It certainly doesn’t mean the land has low ecological values as Dr Smith implies. In fact, Denniston Plateau is ranked in DOC’s top 50 mainland sites for biodiversity.

Questions have also been raised about the timing of his decision. The Minister made his announcement one day before amendments to the Crown Minerals Act came into
play, which would have forced the issue to go out for public consultation.

West Coast Environment Network spokesperson Lynley Hargreaves says Dr Smith deliberately rushed his decision to avoid public consultation. “Open-cast mining on highvalue
conservation land is not something the public of New Zealand support, and the government knows that,” she says.

While Dr Smith’s decision riled many of our supporters,our legal team has been fighting for Denniston in the courts. The month following Dr Smith’s decision we had
mixed results in the High Court where we appealed various legal points that underpin our Environment Court appeal against Bathurst’s resource consents.

The High Court declined our argument that the effects of the proposed nearby Sullivan Mine should be considered as part of the case.

Forest & Bird believes the effects of the adjacent, undeveloped Sullivan mine need to be considered alongside the effects of Bathurst’s proposed mine. The ecological impact of Bathurst’s mining will be all the more devastating if you take into account the future environmental losses next door at Sullivan.

Justice Fogarty ruled that while we put forward “a very powerful proposition … the RMA does not provide for comparative or joint hearings of applications which generate cumulative effects”.

We did, however, have greater success appealing other legal points. The most notable win was the court clearly separating “mitigation” from “offsets”. A key component
to our Environment Court case is challenging Bathurst’s ability to adequately address environmental damages caused by the mine and its surrounding operations.

Its ability to mitigate the effects of a 106-hectare hole in the ground is severely limited. Once you tear up 40 million year- old sandstone pavements and the intricate growth in between, you can’t put them back together.

And while the Minister of Conservation may be trumpeting the benefits of Bathurst’s proposed offsets, its value is substantially less than what will be lost.

The High Court’s ruling helpfully clarifies this point ahead of our Environment Court case. “It’s a really significant point for us, for Denniston and similar cases in the future,”

Debs Martin says. “The High Court’s clarification that offsetting isn’t mitigation is helpful because applicants are, by law, required to avoid, remedy or mitigate their adverse effects.

The Court has made clear that this can’t be achieved through offsetting.”

On June 12 we headed back to the Environment Court, where it deliberated on these matters raised in the High Court. Here we also argued that it wasn’t enough for Bathurst to promise to use its “best endeavours” to establish a reserve on the plateau once it had been granted consent.

The court adjourned its final hearing stating there were still several issues that Bathurst had to address before it would consider its currently “finely balanced” decision. No date was set for the final decision but the court encouraged Bathurst to act with some degree of urgency.

The fight for Denniston has been going on for four years, and we are still far from the end. In 2011 we proposed a 5900-hectare reserve across the Denniston and Stockton
plateaux.

We’re continuing to meet with ministerial representatives, the West Coast Tai Poutini Conservation Board, mining companies and other groups to secure some form of meaningful protection for this one-of-a-kind area.

“With the potential tipping point so close, we can’t afford to play around and wait,” Debs says.

Forest & Bird still needs support. “Despite some apparent losses, our core argument remains strong. We’re determined to show the Environment Court that the ecosystems within the mine footprint are too precious and too intricate to destroy. And no matter how you dress up a compensation package, it will never be good enough to replace what will be lost.”

The real value of $22 million

The $22 million package Bathurst has offered to compensate for mining the Denniston Plateau will cover:

  •  $18.4 million pest control in the Heaphy River catchment over 35 years ($526,000 a year)
  •  $3 million pest control on the plateau over 50 years ($60,000 a year)
  • $589,000 for historic projects on the plateau

Dr Smith claims this will result in a “net increase” for key species. That would be true if DOC hadn’t already committed to undertake predator control at these sites.

It’s been doing pest control in the Heaphy for the past 19 years and a DOC employee said in the Environment Court that irrespective of Bathurst’s offer, “there are definite plans for management to continue”.

As for the plateau, the DOC report states the harsh climate naturally keeps pests to low levels so the conservation benefits from Bathurst’s offer are minimal.

The proposal offers short-term benefits. There are no strategies to discuss what will happen when the tenure expires and the area is again vulnerable to invasion.

Debs says the deal amounts to “shifting DOC funds around”. “It’s not going into any additional conservation work or adding land to the conservation estate. It’s funding a core DOC service that’s already been sufficiently catered for.

“This just drives home our concerns around government cuts to DOC’s operating budget. The move to encourage corporate sponsorship at DOC in lieu of government funding is leading to deals where we’re selling off precious public land.”