Dean Baigent-Mercer: Mining by stealth for Northland

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Northland needs to prepare itself for multinational mining companies. Photo / Thinkstock
Northland needs to prepare itself for multinational mining companies. Photo / Thinkstock

Northland: the skinniest parts of our country with spectacular coastlines, low rugged mountains, is culturally and historically rich and under attack. The charge has been led by the National Coalition Government and Northland councils to smooth the way for multinational mining companies.

The public opposition to mining in 2010 saw 50,000 people march up Queen St against mining in conservation areas. I was there and the mood was clear, the public objected to Government plans to open our national parks to international mining interests. In response, John Key and Gerry Brownlee led us to believe that they had listened to the public, backed down and would protect our precious areas.

But since then it's been full steam ahead with the mining agenda. Without landowner consent, and using $2 million of public money, land from Warkworth to Cape Reinga had aerial geomagnetic surveys carried out last year. Again we were told there was nothing to worry about, that they just wanted to see what was underground.

Two weeks ago a Government delegation and the Far North Mayor Wayne Brown played host at the world's largest mining trade show in Toronto, Canada. They took a promotional booklet that gives the false impression that Northland would welcome all miners with open arms, the natives were friendly, and the Northland life would suit them fine and be prosperous.

The Government timetable sets the next fortnight for northern councils and Maori to point out sensitive areas where mining would be inappropriate then treat all other areas as open for mining applications from next month. Only in May will the ordinary landowners and the public be told in which areas what minerals have been found and where the mining industry is being directed.

This is mining by stealth, despite what the Far North Mayor says.

What we do know is that the two main gold deposits are in deep quartz veins beneath mountains of eastern Northland called Whakarara and Puhipuhi. Accessing gold beneath both would involve literally moving mountains, destroying native forests and reopening some of the largest mercury beds in the country.

Whakarara peak is over 300 metres above sea level. The gold begins 200 metres down through very hard rock. Tunnelling is not an option. Mining would mean another Waihi-type hole in the ground. Toxic waste from hard rock mining, over 18 tonnes per gold ring, would need to be safely stored beyond timescales we can imagine. Both areas are prone to extreme floods as witnessed in recent years and flooding around Kaeo this week.

These mountains head the catchments of the Bay of Islands, the Kaipara and Whangaroa Harbour making waterways downstream at risk of toxic mining pollution, including Matauri Bay, Helena Bay and Mimiwhangata. We can't risk anymore waterways being further contaminated. Already the Far North District Council and Northland Regional Council cannot deal with pollution from dairy farming, let alone pollution from mining companies.

Local authorities are claiming that all mining applications will be subject to 'strict' requirements. But right now the Crown Minerals Act is under review and powerful mining interests are lobbying to strengthen their corporate 'rights' and relax their environmental compliance. They want easier access to any land with minerals and the key objective of new mining laws to be promoting attractiveness for business and investment. All this would further undermine genuine environmental, public concerns and sensible protection.

And despite what the Government promised two years ago, mining investigation permits have since been given the thumbs up for World Heritage areas and South Island National Parks. Will Coromandel and Great Barrier Island be next in the firing line?

The Department of Conservation has recently sacked their "back office" staff with the knowledge and skills to address biodiversity and recreation threats from mining applications. Internal memos now instruct what the Department can and cannot comment on. In contrast there has been a major staff expansion within the Ministry of Economic Development to promote the discovery and extraction of minerals, metals and oil.

But the public backlash has already begun as local communities in Northland feel betrayed. Perhaps that's why the politicians are rushing ahead, to try and sign contracts with miners before the mining reality sinks in.

* Dean Baigent-Mercer is the Chairperson of the Far North Forest and Bird Branch. He has worked on national and international conservation issues.

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