23 May 2013

Australian miner granted access to West Coast land

10:09 pm on 23 May 2013

The Government has given an Australian mining company access to conservation land on the South Island's West Coast.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith has approved Bathurst Resources' application for an open-cast coal mine on 106 hectares of Denniston Plateau's 2026 hectares near Westport.

Bathurst Resources managing director Hamish Bohannan, left, with Nick Smith.

Bathurst Resources managing director Hamish Bohannan, left, with Nick Smith. Photo: RNZ

However, the Bathurst consents are being appealed against at the Christchurch High Court next week. The Environment Court has said that if the court rejects the appeals, it will sign off the consents in mid-June.

The land involved is not part of a national park or conservation park, but is general stewardship land controlled by the Department of Conservation (DoC).

The mining company will pay for a $22 million package to fund pest and predator control in the Kahurangi National Park as well as on or around the Denniston Plateau.

But environmentalists and conservation groups aren't happy. Forest and Bird spokesperson Debs Martin says the offer is not good enough.

"It's a real shame for us that we're selling off one of New Zealand's top 50 mainland sites of biodiversity for $22 million when the Government could well afford to be propping up the department. This is about selling off New Zealand's natural treasures."

Conservationists say the Denniston Plateau's rare and endangered species, such as snails, geckos and weta and its unique rock formations make it too valuable to desecrate further.

West Coast Environment Network spokesperson Lynley Hargraves says they haven't given up the fight yet.

"We're very angry - and this won't be the end of this. Mark my words, there will be people camping up here in front of the bulldozers. This won't be the last that you hear about the battle on Denniston."

However, many locals are celebrating the announcement, saying a new mine will be a great move for the West Coast, especially with financially troubled state-owned company Solid Energy facing an uncertain future.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith says the Bathurst deal has come at the right time.

"It is significant for the West Coast community. I am very mindful that the community has had some pretty hard kicks with both the awful tragedy at Pike (River mine) and with respect to the financial woes of Solid Energy.

"I hope today's announcement goes some way to restore confidence in this wonderful corner of New Zealand."

From Friday, changes to the Crown Minerals Act mean the public would have to be consulted about projects to mine on conservation land and the minister is being accused of making the decision on Thursday to avoid that.

However, Dr Smith told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme the new law puts more weight on the economic benefits of mining, so making the decision today meant the Department of Conservation gained a more generous compensation deal.

If Bathurst gains resource consent, it plans to employ about 450 staff at the Denniston mine which could be open by Christmas 2013.

West Coast residents turned out for the minister's announcement on Thursday.

West Coast residents turned out for the minister's announcement on Thursday. Photo: RNZ