Coal Mine Approved for New Zealand National Park
It's not only governments in so-called "lesser developed" nations which are now racing to permit mining in protected forest areas. The Aotearao/New Zealand Conservation Minister has just announced a large new coal mine in, and under, a major National Park - over objections by his own staff. Environmental groups are up in arms - and the coal isn't even intended for domestic use.
Coal Mine Approved for New Zealand National Park
Environmental News Service (ENS)
March 16, 2004
New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter has given conditional approval to an underground coal mine in and adjacent to a national park.
Over the objections of environmental groups, the Pike River Coal Company has gotten the nod to develop a mine at Paparoa National Park near Pike River on the West Coast of the country's South Island.
The approval is subject to the company and the Department of Conservation (DOC) reaching a satisfactory agreement on the terms and conditions of the company's access to the area, including financial assurances and bonds.
"I want to emphasise that this approval is conditional on my being satisfied that the terms of the access agreement achieve the highest possible environmental safeguards so that the conservation values of the area are protected as fully as possible," Carter said on Friday.
The Pike River Coal company is 72 percent owned by New Zealand Oil and Gas Ltd., and the remainder is held by private investors. The company proposes to extract between 600,000 and a million tons of coal annually for an estimated 20 years.
The coal is classed as high grade bituminous and has strong coking properties, which is currently in great demand world wide for its use in iron smelting.
The mine will require an access road over 3.6 kilometers of public conservation land and the mine itself is located under conservation land on the eastern slopes of the Paparoa range in the Grey Valley northeast of Greymouth.
"This mine does represent an intrusion into an area of high conservation values and a decision on whether to allow it to go ahead has been a very difficult one to make because of this," Carter said.
"I have considered the fact that the mine is mostly underground and its visual footprint above ground is small - 10 hectares - compared with the large area of protected landscape surrounding it - 88,000 hectares," the minister said.
"Most of the public conservation land that will be affected is stewardship land," he said. "There are only small impacts on the neighboring ecological area and the Paparoa National Park, which carry a much higher legal status."
Ignoring own report
The largest New Zealand conservation, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, is criticizing Carter for ignoring a report by his own staff that says the mine will be destructive for the area.
A DOC report obtained by Forest and Bird under the Official Information Act reveals that the controversial coal mine is inconsistent with conservation legislation and would degrade an important and almost pristine area, said Forest and Bird field officer, Eugenie Sage.
"Creating New Zealand's second largest export coal mine adjacent to, and eventually under, Paparoa National Park would be a supreme environmental folly," Sage said.
"The Department's Conservancy Mining Report of December 19, 2003 is a thorough and responsible evaluation of the mine's impacts. It is based on the work of Departmental staff and independent geological and geochemical experts. It clearly shows that the proposed coal mine is inconsistent with both the Conservation and National Parks Acts and should be turned down," she said.
Acid mine drainage
"The access road and mine facilities area would destroy forest habitat in the Pike valley. Mining would severely degrade the pristine Pike Stream and cause permanent water pollution problems from acid mine drainage. Underground mining would create a major risk of subsidence and landslips in the steep mountainous country in the headwaters of Pike Stream, and surface cracking and subsidence on the fringes of Paparoa National Park," she said.
Carter acknowledged that subsidence would take place as the coal is removed from under the ground, but he discounted the severity of it.
"DOC has advised me that I can have reasonable confidence that the foreseeable adverse effects of subsidence will be manageable and can be partially safeguarded, so long as comprehensive conditions are placed in the access arrangement and these conditions are strictly adhered to by the mining company," the minister said.
He said he had been advised that acid mine drainage from the operation would be "manageable" and possibly low.
But Forest and Bird pointed to the conclusion drawn by DOC staff that wrote the report it received under the Information Act. The report concludes, "the proposed mining operations appear prima facie to be inconsistent with the purposes for which the land is held."
The development of the proposed access way on public conservation land involves the construction of a 3.6 kilometer long, seven meter wide road with additional infrastructures such as a coal slurry pipeline, bridges, silt/dump ponds and powerlines. Developing the access route would involve the clearance of a 15 to 20 meter wide corridor of forest plus an additional area for the stone drive portal area, the staff report states.
The DOC staff wrote that some of the potential adverse effects might be averted with imposed conditions of operation and rehabilitation, and offset by compensation from the mining company, but that "significant loss to natural resources," could not be avoided.
Greenpeace New Zealand expressed "shock" over the minister's approval of the new coal mine, not because it would damage the park land but because burning the coal to be extracted will add to the planet's global warming problem, Greenpeace said.
"The Labour Government's decision is completely inconsistent with their commitments to doing something about climate change," said Vanessa Atkinson, Greenpeace climate campaigner. "Coal burning emits more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel and carbon dioxide is the major cause of climate change. This is not just fiddling while Rome burns, its actively fuelling the fires."
"Giving the go-ahead for the Pike River coal mine whilst Pacific Islands like Kiribati begin to go under the sea and New Zealand is battered with extreme weather events costing the country multi-millions in cleanup makes no sense at all," she said.
"The Pike River project will produce 650,000 to a 1.1 million tons of coal which will produce 2.7 million tons of carbon dioxide every year over the two decade life of the mine," said Atkinson who called the project "a throw back to the 1970s before we were aware of climate change and the direct impact that such projects have on our environment.