The Government has shut the public out of plans for the largest open-cast mining project on New Zealand conservation land, after earlier declaring the public would have input on major mining proposals.
On the first working day since the election, Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson confirmed that public consultation would not be sought over mining of the biodiversity-rich Denniston Plateau on the South Island's West Coast.
Answering a letter from Forest and Bird conservation group, she said mining of conservation land was considered under the Crown Minerals Act, which did not legally require public consultation.
"It would, therefore, not be appropriate to run a public consultation process in respect of this application under the present legislation."
After last year's highly contentious debate over mining on Schedule Four land, Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee and Ms Wilkinson said future applications to mine on the conservation land would be publicly notified.
Ms Wilkinson informed Forest and Bird that she would have to make a law change to allow public consultation.
Forest and Bird's conservation advocate Nicola Vallance claimed this assertion was false: "There is nothing in the Crown Minerals Act to stop ministers calling for public submissions on the proposed mine. They could then take these into consideration when making the decision, and the decision would be better informed."
The Government is reviewing the Crown Minerals Act and has said it will change public notification legislation this year.
Australian coalminer Bathurst Resources has already gained resource consent - subject to appeals - to take coal from the West Coast site. It is also seeking an access agreement, which includes roads to the 160ha mine.
Bathurst must also get permission from the Conservation Minister to dig through public land to access the coal. It is this consent which Ms Wilkinson has not sought public submissions on.
The commissioners who granted the initial resource consent in September said they did with "considerable reservations and anguish".
"There is no doubt that Stockton and Denniston are the only ecosystems [of their kind] in New Zealand, and that it supports indigenous flora and fauna that is both nationally and internationally rare."
They granted the consent on the grounds that it would bring "enormous financial benefit" to the Buller district and West Coast region, including 424 jobs.
The Government recently drafted a National Policy Statement to protect loss of native biodiversity, but this applied only to private land, not the conservation estate.
The open-cut coal mine will lead to the loss of roughly 140ha of indigenous habitat, home to several significant species including a carnivorous land snail.