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To Mine, or Not to Mine? - That is the Question!

It was déjà vu all over again at the District Plan Hearings on Thursday when mining interests went head to head v. Coromandel Watchdog for another round of the endless sparring that has characterised the relationship since JC was a boy - Catherine Delahunty put it succinctly, “we have been at it for 30 years or more, and nothing has changed.” Today was clearly a ‘key’ day in the Hearing process, and the public gallery was mostly full.

More about the CW evidence later.

The mining industry (NZ Petroleum & Mining) people came well-armed, led by a smart young lawyer who presented well-worn evidence on the value of the industry in general and in the Hauraki in particular. I never heard the Newmont stuff, but it was apparently pretty similar, though Newmont apparently differed in terms of the restrictions that are proposed – the industry basically wants all restrictions on mining removed, and individual applications handled through the Resource Consent process – not much chance of that, and Newmont is somewhat more realistic.  

Written evidence was not distributed to the gallery by any of the parties, so I am reliant on what I heard – or rather didn’t hear – the acoustics being as bad as ever, and by way of observation – the bigger the witness, the softer the voice, or that is how it appeared to me! The industry people provided a raft of ‘factual’ evidence, through one of their ‘suits’ - a geologist – it was given in a boring and unconvincing monotone that reflected a “what the hell am I doing here” attitude. It may have been impressive, but I have no way of knowing, and being the only ‘reporter’ present I was certainly not going to chase them for their submission.

The gist of it was that the effect of mining on land these days is “minimal” – confined in effect to a 'portal,' if you can believe it, and the effect of tailings is vastly over-stated – they can be easily confined and protected using modern methods – evidence that was smartly overturned by Coromandel Watchdog geologist Gordon Jackman when he stated with evidence that arsenic in its arsenate (oxidised) state can “never be safely stored.”

The industry guy rambled on about the history of the area and need to explore in order to establish just what is there, though they seemed to already know where the excellent prospects are. From what he said, they would love to have the opportunity to get and have a look over the entire Peninsula – “just looking  – move on - nothing to see!”

It was clear from the outset that Farnsworth (Chairman) & Co were keen to establish ‘fairness’ in the hearing, and everyone on both sides was given a fair crack of the whip. I did not get any body language that would indicate prior judgment, but there was some frustration, particularly with ‘expert witnesses who failed to back up generalisations with facts, figures and peer reviewed references.      

Coromandel Watchdog was allocated three hours for their evidence divided into two tranches – lay, and expert. The lay group of eight gave some impassioned testimony of what the Coromandel meant to them. They were led by Delahunty who showed her long experience with this kind of thing and was oratorical in her presentation – particularly as she was able to show that her ancestors came as miners in the 1860’s and that “it did them no good!”

There was no compromise from Catherine on the question of amateur/tourist/childrens’ small scale mining and processing (25 tonnes a day) suggested by the Hauraki Prospectors Association Inc. through their spokesman on Wednesday – Carl Jenson. They will have a fight on with any suggestion of extending their Gold-Mine Experience facility north of Thames town for this purpose. Just a thought - CW may consider the huge amount of goodwill they would obtain within the town were they to give way on this – for historical reasons Thames is currently evenly balanced on the mining issue I suspect, and many would like to see the HPA facility operate – it is after all the  highest patronised tourism venture in the town, and facing some major consenting/lease issues over the next few years.

Other witnesses stuck to their particular interests, and were given more than adequate leeway by the panel that was anxious to impose some restrictions on the breadth of evidence, particularly in regard to Sec. 32/A/AA of the 2013 Amendments to the 1991 Act in regard to risks, costs and benefits. Lay submissions of a largely emotive nature can stretch definitions, but really need to be heard.  

Overall the impression was that this group still represents the views of the majority (not necessarily Thames!) of the population (as tested some twenty years ago), and showed that long term interests are subjugated by mining in every respect. They showed that they were deeply knowledgeable in regard to past court decisions that abhorred ‘blanket bans’ by councils, and though they preferred such, they were prepared to accept the Schedule Four status quo, with restrictions ratcheted up to prevent intrusions around the edges, and to cover the Whangamata area. The Monowai mine at Waiomu appears a particular concern. CW took part in the Tripartite Agreement that allowed the previous Plan to become operative, after holding out for changes they considered essential.

To be honest I thought that the well-worn folders of their five expert witnesses (all elderly white males bar one) looked like they had been opened a few too many times. They did not appear to be telling the Panel anything new, and they knew it. But Dr Phil Bishop from the Otago University was able to tell the Panel about the Archeys Frog - spell-binding stuff – did you know that it can’t swim, it only produces 10 eggs a year, and the male carries the baby frogs (not tadpoles!) on its back. And is the highest rated endangered amphibian on the planet according to some European scorecard - obviously a dammed important species well worthy of protection

The evidence regarding potential contamination and degradation of the environment resulting from mining is pretty hard to argue, and the ‘experts’ dealt to most of what the miners had to say in an impressive manner. They were well led by the CW lawyer Rob Enright.

There is no doubt that the Panel will be walking a tight-rope when it deals with mining in its final report. The last thing that the Council wants is litigation similar to that which occurred on the last occasion that holds up the operation of the Plan. On the other hand, both the Panel and Council need to be cognizant of the desire of the Government of the day to remove road-blocks to development and employment.

It is critical for opponents to mining to prove that that have alternatives that outweigh the perceived short or long term benefits of mining. That will undoubtedly be the most difficult and contentious aspect of the new District Plan facing this panel, and they will need to exercise the wisdom of Solomon in arriving at a decision.

One thing is certain – blanket bans are out. Restrictions on specific areas are likely, and in particular, notifications and suggested adjustments to Schedule Four are most likely. Anything of that nature will be subject to re-negotiation of the Tripartite Agreement, and probably out of the question, but I cannot see how objectives can otherwise be achieved.

Clearly tired of having to play the Devil's advocate role, it is nevertheless unlikely that CW will avoid this role in future hearings on mining on the Peninsula, There is no way that the mining industry are going to let up on endeavouring to access the Peninsula in whole or in part, and they are well resourced to continue the battle. Coromandel Watchdog clearly hope for at least a ten year respite through the District Plan, and are to be congratulated for the manner in which they marshal their limited resources and take it on. Their ‘experts’ are probably heartily sick of the unpaid gig (or at least that is my understanding – correct me if I am wrong!)

Most of the ‘experts’ will be returning later in the Hearings on other contentious issues – landscape etc., and although mining is the 'touch-stone' issue, there remain some major issues with substantial emotive potential. And finally can I just say that the work of Leigh Robke - District Plan Manager and Senior Planner Bruce Baker in regard to this Draft Plan has been outstanding - I think that despite certain parties taking issue particularly with the efforts to "streamline" the process, that the result to date has been of a very high standard, and suggests an excellent outcome. Well done!    




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