By Helen Bain
Surgical” and “mining” – those two words go together about as
well as “honest” and “politician”.
When Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee announced a “stock take” of New Zealand’s most precious conservation land to see if it should be mined.
Prime Minister John Key commented that modern techniques meant that mining could be done “surgically” with little effect on the environment.
Unfortunately the reality of mining in New Zealand’s wilderness areas would be anything but surgical, Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell says.
“If the mining we see happening right here and now in New Zealand is surgical, then the surgeon must have gone mad and run amok with a chainsaw,” he says.
“Most modern mining still has serious and irreversible consequences for the environment, and opening up our national parks to mining would be devastating to our
landscapes and wildlife.”
Mining has a long history in New Zealand, with coal mining beginning here in the 1830s and gold rushes from the 1850s-1870s.
The amount of coal being mined has grown steadily, and today most mining in New Zealand is coal mining – 4.9 million tonnes of coal were mined in 2008. Most coal mining is centred on the West Coast, Waikato and Southland.
The biggest coal mining company in New Zealand is Solid Energy, a State-owned company, which mines about 4 million tonnes of coal a year and plans to expand mining significantly in the next 20 years. Its current licences and exploration permits cover more than 700 million tonnes of coal.
Operations at Solid Energy’s Stockton Mine on the West Coast illustrate the scale of the environmental impact of mining.
Open cast mines like Stockton have a much greater impact than underground mines. Up to the 1940s, almost all coal mining was in underground mines, but since then open
cast mining has grown to where most coal is now mined in open cast mines (in 2008 five underground and 20 open cast coal mines were operating, and 63% of coal was mined from open cast mines.)
The result: massive open scars on the landscape, entire mountaintops and hillsides removed to get at the coal below.
Solid Energy runs a programme of “rehabilitation” following mining operations – earthworks that involve rebuilding landforms and replanting vegetation on top.
But of more than 1000 hectares of “disturbed” land at Stockton, only 20ha was “rehabilitated” in 2008/09 and substitute for their original habitat which was destroyed by
mining. Many other native species, including kiwi and other native birds, rare tussock grasslands and endangered native frogs, are under threat from mining.
Another problem caused by mining is the acidification and pollution of waterways. Coal mines expose sulphide in rocks to the air and water, which produces sulphuric acid
and causes groundwater, streams and rivers to become more acidic. The effects of acid mine drainage and sedimentation on freshwater systems can be severe, killing
freshwater life such as fish and invertebrates. While gold mining is on a smaller scale than coal in New Zealand – annual gold production is about 11.8
tonnes, most from only two large mines: Macraes Mine in Otago and the Martha Mine in Waihi – it also has significant impact on the environment. To extract the gold, thousands
of tonnes of rock are dug up, crushed and processed.
Gold mining contaminates waterways with toxic substances and heavy metals such as cyanide, arsenic, cadmium, lead and zinc, with devastating effects on
Solid Energy was praised by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright for improvements in water quality in waterways near the Stockton Mine. By dosing streams with crushed lime, acidity was reduced, while settling ponds reduce the
amount of coal dust suspended in the waterways.
But Kevin Hackwell says that improvement is nowhere near good enough.
“You could say that the rivers used to flow black with coal dust and now they flow brown with the mixture of remaining coal dust and lime – they are hardly pristine.”
The commissioner’s 2009 report also limited itself to the immediate impact of mining – it didn’t concern itself with the fact that burning coal is the single largest global source
of greenhouse gases, which are causing climate change.
Coal comes in four grades: anthracite (the most valuable), bituminous coal, sub-bituminous coal, and lignite – or brown coal, which is the least valuable. Most coal
mined in New Zealand is bituminous and sub-bituminous, but Solid Energy is expanding mining of the least-valuable and dirtiest coal, lignite. Of all the coal remaining in the ground, 74% is lignite, compared to 20% sub-bituminous and just 6% bituminous.
“Lignite or brown coal is one of the dirtiest fossil fuels there is,” Kevin Hackwell says. “So not only are we looking at the direct impact of mining on the surrounding
environment, we are also creating a massive amount of carbon emissions from burning lignite and using it to produce fertiliser for dairy farms.”
The visual scarring and pollution of mining have an effect not only on the wildlife that depends on the protection of our conservation estate, it also threatens the
security of New Zealand’s number one international selling only 30ha are planned for rehabilitation this year.
“The idea that you can dig a 1000-hectare hole in the ground, and then put it all back again and everything will be just the same is ludicrous,” Kevin Hackwell says.
“Natural ecosystems cannot simply be recreated – you will never restore a mined area to anything even approaching a natural state.”
That’s bad news for the unique native species that exist in land being mined. Of most concern is the native giant Powelliwhanta Augustus carnivorous snails which are found
nowhere else but the mountaintop which Solid Energy wanted to mine. Solid Energy’s solution was to remove the snails with the aim of translocating them to alternative
habitat. Unfortunately a large number of the translocated snails have not survived in their new home, and many remain in a chilly limbo, stored in refrigerators.
“The outcome for the snails is not looking good – it could well be the extinction of this unique native species,” Kevin Hackwell says. The habitat to which the snails
have been transferred is proving to be an unsatisfactory point: our clean, green reputation on which we base our “100% Pure New Zealand” brand.
Earnings from minerals make up just 3% of New Zealand’s wealth. In comparison, earnings from New Zealand’s conservation land make up 20%.
The total value of minerals mined in New Zealand is $1.6 billion – compared to $21 billion earned by tourism, which relies heavily of the preservation of conservation land.
If more mining is allowed in conservation lands, it will damage the unspoiled natural landscapes, habitats and wildlife that attract tourists from around the world – and
end up costing us billions.
National has said that exploiting our mineral wealth would help New Zealand “catch up” with Australia in economic performance – but New Zealand does not have
the large quantities of valuable minerals which are mined in Australia.
Conservation (and the associated service industries it supports in tourism) also supports many more jobs than mining. In 2008, 5800 people were employed in mining
in New Zealand – compared to 108,000 people who are directly employed in tourism, and many thousands more who are employed in others sectors boosted by tourism,
and in conservation.
The experience of towns like Waihi shows that economic benefits do not always flow to residents – despite gold mining profits being made by the gold mines, the town’s residents still experienced high levels of economic deprivation and unemployment. Highly paid and skilled jobs rarely went to locals.
A further risk is that mining companies have a track record of making their profits, then going into liquidation, leaving behind a toxic legacy. These abandoned mines –
known as “orphan mines” – can be very expensive to clean up. For example, taxpayers are currently footing a $10 million bill to clean up the abandoned Tui Mine.
“Mining has been the ultimate extractive and unsustainable industry – it really has been rip shit and bust,” Kevin Hackwell says. “That is the sad legacy of
mining in New Zealand and there is no evidence that
anything is going to change.”