Gold fever returns to Northland

By Catherine Masters

As mining makes a political comeback Catherine Masters finds strong local opposition to the prospect of a Northland gold rush.

Evan Smeath stands in an old gold mine shaft on his property. Mining may return to the Northland property. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Evan Smeath stands in an old gold mine shaft on his property. Mining may return to the Northland property. Photo / Steven McNicholl

There's an old newspaper clipping on the National Library's Paperspast website from November 1889 with the headline Undeveloped Wealth, the Puhipuhi Gold and Silver Mines.

This Northland mountain, about 20km north of Whangarei and once an area of magnificent stands of kauri - it's suspected early settlers burnt them all down to clear the way for pasture - is no stranger to gold fever.

The potential at Puhipuhi was such the whole of the North Island might benefit, the unnamed correspondent said as he described "three beautiful silver and gold-bearing stones" which had been placed on show in Whangarei before being sent for testing.

He also, and in retrospect a little breathlessly, wrote: "It is hoped the crushing may be proof of the payable nature of the find as if it is there is but little doubt it will be the making not only of Whangarei, Kamo, Hikurangi and Kawakawa but the tide of fortune will be felt in Auckland and in fact all over the North Island."

The nation was still in the grip of gold fever - and perhaps not that much has changed.

In the hope of jobs, economic returns and the boosting of depressed areas such as Northland, the Government continues to push to open the country up to mineral and oil exploration, to the delight of some and consternation of others.

In Northland, anti-mining groups protested at the launch of recently-released results from a taxpayer and ratepayer-funded aerial magnetic survey of 13,500 square kilometres designed to, at least in part, give international mining companies a better idea of where the region's mineral wealth may be.

Since then 5537 square kilometres have been opened up to competitive tender. Companies have until December this year to submit five-year work programmes as they bid for exploration rights.

Within that tender area, however, is a small square of 6116 hectares which is already under gold exploration: Puhipuhi.

Gold was never extracted in vast amounts from Puhipuhi, though it is believed to be there, deep in the earth.

In recent times a succession of international mining companies have held exploration licences over the area but have not gone on to mine for gold.

But some of the locals, who are used to the continual search for gold, fear the threat of mining is more real because of the Government's enthusiasm for mining - and because the exploration licence is now held by the Waihi Gold Company which is wholly-owned by Newmont, the world's second-largest gold mining company with operations in Australia, America, Peru, Indonesia, Ghana, Canada and Mexico.

Newmont Waihi Gold runs the huge hole in the ground which is the open-pit Martha Mine in Waihi and the underground mines Favona and Trio. Instead of winding down mining in Waihi over the next few years, the company hopes to embark on another huge mine project which would involve tunnelling 350m under the eastern part of the town itself.

Puhipuhi is the only exploration licence the company holds outside Waihi and the Coromandel and though Waihi Gold assured the Weekend Herald any actual mining was "years away", some of the locals fear the Northland aerial magnetic survey has been a giant cost-saving boost which could catapult the company ahead of schedule.

Once mining starts, where does it end, they ask, warning of potential far-reaching environmental consequences, foreseen and unforeseen, and saying they have little faith in any promise of economic recovery and local jobs.

On a crisp winter's morning at Whakapara community hall at Puhipuhi, 72-year-old Reverend Thelma Connor of Ngati Hau performs a karakia.

She thanks God for the use of the hall, the food and the sunshine, then asks him to prevent toxic mining.

The kuia has gathered with others, including daughter Kristi Henare and Pakeha farmer Evan Smeath, to talk about what they perceive as the latest threat, not just to Puhipuhi mountain but to the lush farmland all around and below and the myriad overland and underground waterways which weave and join, going all the way to the Kaipara Harbour.

They're no greenie activists stirring up trouble, they say adamantly, but real people who live in the area.

And they're worried.

Puhipuhi, which is a mix of privately-owned farms, Crown land and Ngati Hau land, has seen mining before - there's an old defunct silver mine on the mountain and also the remnants of an old mercury mine, including a tailings dam which is almost impenetrable because of gorse.

Mercury is a big part of people's concern. The element is often found attached to gold and the area is rich in mercury-bearing stone. Mercury was mined off and on until 1945 though, according to a Department of Conservation report, never overly successfully.

Workers suffered inflamed gums and loose teeth and the report says inhaling mercury vapour can have "very nasty consequences, such as lung damage, tremors, nausea, emotional upheaval, kidney damage and even death".

Locals fear mining such as underground mining involving blasting and tunnelling could leave tailings (the waste product of mining) contaminating the waterways, possibly affecting the health of people and entering the food chain via the dairy cows that munch on the pasture below in the unique flood-prone environment known as the Hikurangi Swamp.

The swamp - which once was exactly that - has an extensive drainage system enabling around 5600 hectares of the 42,000 catchment area to be farmed, worth around $33 million a year in milk production.

Evan Smeath farms 500 acres at Hukerenui at the top end of the swamp and has won a variety of farming awards, including the Ballance Farm Environment Supreme award for Northland.

He tells how, in the late 1990s, the council used rock from an old quarry on Puhipuhi for local roads but everything that came in contact with it died and the council took it away again. There were even complaints of cars rusting from driving on the roads.

Smeath believes mercury got into the water table back then because down below on his farm he had big dead patches in the paddocks.

Mercury does not dissipate quickly, he says. It stays around in the soil and pasture and if eaten by stock it enters the food chain.

"It's all going to be affected by what's going on up there and we're quite concerned because we haven't been notified of what's going on, how they're going to do it, what they're prospecting for, have they done a total mitigation effect on everybody and everything in the area and is there a flood profile done as well?

"If they're doing mining up there and we get 400 mls of rain in Puhipuhi and we get overflow here, and if they get an overflow up there from their mining tailings, guess where it's all going to end up - down here on this lovely swamp."

Another farmer, Neville Thorne, showed a wetlands in the middle of the swamp, managed by DOC and Fish and Game, which he said would be put at risk, and Connor spoke of healing streams used by the old people who bathed in them when they were sick. People who knew about the streams still did, she said.

It's clear there is huge alarm, some of it generated by not knowing what is going to happen and when.

Newmont Waihi Gold spokesman Sefton Darby could not give those answers but did say there was "categorically, absolutely no way" the company would be applying for a licence to mine in the next couple of years, if at all, because there was still too much work to be done.

The company didn't know how much gold was down there - if that was the case, it would be a lot closer to applying for a mining licence, he said.

There has already been drilling on Puhipuhi in the past few years - locals talked of access to a hill known as Plum Duff not being given by one farmer, so a big drill was put in sideways from the next property.

Darby said this was not done by Newmont and it was too soon to say whether they would drill.

"For us it's number one, crunch that data that came out of the Crown and number two, get some guys up there to do some basic mapping and soil sampling work."

The most intrusive things people should expect to see in the next year would be a geologist or two with backpacks going around mapping and sampling, he said.

And even if the company got to the drilling stage, there may never be an application to mine; this was just the "exploration game".

"I think we've drilled kilometres and kilometres on the Coromandel Peninsula for 20 years and what we've come up with so far is the Martha Mine and the Favona and Trio mines, so your hit rate is pretty low in general."

Darby advised Northlanders to realise that mining took time. With the new proposed Correnso mine under east Waihi it had taken three or four years to go from thinking there might be gold to being confident enough to apply for a mining licence and head down the Resource Management process.

Then you had to put another two years aside for public hearings and the almost inevitable environment court appeal and then, if approval was given, add another two years just to construct the tunnels to get to the ore.

"It's not uncommon to have a process where it would take five to 10 years from starting work to actually having gold coming out of the ground."

Northland was new territory for his company, he said, adding that the mining industry needed to think long and hard because mining in the region would only work if companies understood both the environment and the community, and he pointed out that hugely complicated unsettled treaty claims should also be considered.

As for Northlanders, communities should be asking questions such as what kind of mining, whereabouts and by whom: "All of those questions radically change whether a mine is acceptable or not acceptable in my eyes."

As Northlanders show huge interest in jobs in Australia's mining industry, Northland mining proponents such as Far North District Mayor Wayne Brown point to reports which say the gold and silver in the region could be worth $1.53 billion and that expanding mineral production would create an estimated 1127 full-time jobs in the mining sector and 1596 new jobs in other sectors.

Darby cautioned economic benefits would not be immediate and says he tells people mining won't save us from the current economic crisis but it will save us from the next one.

Waihi Gold has 350 full-time jobs in a town of 4500 people and there are a similar number of jobs through indirect employment which would not exist without the mine.

"So that would be the local mechanic or the local laundry. We have a big laundry contract, strangely, because guys get dirty and they need to send their overalls off somewhere every day."

There was also "induced economic impact" such as the Waihi New World having more people shopping there and the fact that about 32 per cent of the company's operational and capital expenditures went to businesses within 30km of Waihi, and about 82 per cent of expenditure overall stayed within New Zealand.

He says when the mining licences come up in Northland, communities should be asking what the company's policy is around local procurement and local employment because though the focus is often on tax and royalties, the single biggest economic impact of a business is where and how it spends its money.

If residents around Puhipuhi are nervous of mining, businesses in Northland are optimistic.

The Northern Chamber of Commerce represents businesses from the Brynderwyns north, and president Mark Smith agrees with Wayne Brown's bring-it-on attitude to mining.

Smith is confident that as long as best practices are followed mining these days has a safe outcome for the environment.

"And naturally there's a whole economic spin-off for the region, so even if you take somewhere like Greymouth that's had mining and has even had some great disasters around it, you see the town is still crying out for the mine to get going again because of the economic impact for the region. So I think it's highly valuable."

Ngati Hau at Puhipuhi have gone as far as to get a baseline study of a stream so they can compare conditions before and after mining.

The hapu has a resource management unit and when we asked trustee Te Raa Nehua if he had any trust of mining companies, he interrupted to say "no."

"I mean, they haven't even bothered to come to talk to us. They're aware of us and have been for some time; they can't even talk to us. They've got to drive past us to get there, there's only one road in."

The unit's convenor, Allan Halliday, said all over the world mining proponents talked up the benefits of mining, such as jobs and the economy, but after they had gone the natives were still left there.

"The same is going to happen for Puhipuhi. Ngati Hau is still going to be left there.

"Unfortunately, things like the environment suffers and if the environment suffers we all eventually suffer. It's no use being the richest man in the cemetery."

- NZ Herald

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