Mine of opposing passions

By Catherine Masters

Protestors marched along the waterfront in Paihia and over the bridge to Waitangi. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Protestors marched along the waterfront in Paihia and over the bridge to Waitangi. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Aorangi Kawiti is a 50-year-old grandmother from the Bay of Islands who says she doesn't want to talk.

Then she starts talking and has trouble stopping.

The topic is mining, which excites considerable passion in people - whether they are for it or against it.

Kawiti is dead against mining because, she says, no amount of money can replace Papatuanuku, by which she means the earth. Papatuanuku is the earth mother in Maori creation tradition.

"All the gold in the world is not going to fix Papatuanuku when they're finished."

"They" are the international miners some in Northland fear will swarm over the hills exploring for gold, silver and other valuable minerals in the next few years when they are given the go-ahead by the Government in a couple of weeks to bid for exploration licences.

Kawiti is part of a protest group who marched from Paihia to Waitangi last week to picket outside a meeting of mining representatives, selected iwi and business interests.

The meeting is presided over by extremely pro-mining Far North District Mayor Wayne Brown and pro-mining Minister for Energy and Resources Phil Heatley, who is also MP for Whangarei.

People at the meeting are given a copy of the complex data from an aeromagnetic survey of Northland undertaken last year to take away and have analysed.

From the data, mining companies should have a better idea of where valuable minerals may be and can then decide whether they want to take exploration further.

No one attending the meeting seems able to say for certain exactly where rich deposits of, for example, gold are, but Heatley says afterwards there are good indications of gold, silver and copper deposits worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

He also points to a report by GNS Science from 2007 which said the mineral potential of gold and silver alone in Northland could be $1.53 billion.

There are other valuable minerals in the Northland earth too, such as copper, iron, nickel, lead and zinc.

To people like Kawiti, all the money to be made means nothing.

She's a spiritual woman and also a practical woman, who wants the land to be preserved unspoilt for her future descendants.

But she, like the others at the protest, fears miners will leave behind a toxic mess and that there is a big potential for waterways and land to be poisoned.

She says if we allow miners in to rape and pillage the land there will be nothing left for the future.

And though there is a presumption among pro-miners that nothing will go wrong, in mining things do go wrong - just look at the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The prospect of mining is very scary, agrees dreadlocked Pakeha Dean Baigent-Mercer, of Whangaroa in the Far North.

Baigent-Mercer is from Forest & Bird and organised the protest, which he says is only the first wave of what he expects will be growing anti-mining protests in Northland.

As he runs through the dangers, he says gold and silver are not that easy to find any more.

When gold is discovered it is way down deep in the earth and the process to get it out is very difficult.

"You have to take out rock ore and then you turn that into a powder and then you flood that with cyanide and the cyanide brings out the heavy metal.

"So it brings out the gold and silver but it also brings out lots of real nasties, like cadmium, arsenic, mercury. Really dangerous stuff.

"You end up with a large amount of toxic waste. For one gold ring, you end up with the equivalent, conservatively, of 18 tonnes of toxic waste."

Toxic waste has to be contained and kept out of the food chain and waterways for thousands of years, he says. But even with the safest containment, there is no guarantee the earth won't move and the waste spill out anyway.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Far North's controversial mayor, Brown, who is equally passionate about the need for mining.

Anti-mining lobbyists are riled at the lengths to which Brown has gone to woo international mining companies to New Zealand.

Earlier in the year he went to a big mining conference in Toronto, Canada, armed with a glossy brochure put out by a group called Explore Northland Minerals which formed a few years ago with membership from New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals (a branch of the Ministry of Economic Development), the Far North District Council, the Northland Regional Council, and a variety of industry and Government experts.

And Brown. He is the chair and spokesperson for the group and in the brochure - which produced a map of likely mineral deposits featured on this page - he describes Northland as a sub-tropical paradise rich with history and inhabited by a cosmopolitan mix of people.

"We are confident that the unmatched economic and lifestyle opportunities in Northland will make it a top destination on your prospect list," he wrote.

Brown sees mining as the way out of Northland's economic woes and low socio-economic standing among many of its people.

He believes mining will lead to high-paying jobs and a much-needed step-change in the Northland economy.

After the meeting, Brown can't explain the data in the aeromagnetic survey report, saying that you have to hire a geologist for that.

But he says it is already known, from earlier explorations and reports, that there is gold, copper, manganese, mercury and lead.

"That's just what some prospectors found with a chisel and hammer, which is an old-fashioned dumb way of doing things."

He says prospecting companies would now analyse the data from the survey madly then talk to their boards and come up with a budget for drilling, but they would not drill unless they were fairly sure something good was down there.

Brown describes the aerial survey data as like keyhole surgery.

"In the old days you'd slosh open down there because because you're a bit sore down there.

"Nowadays, you can get a CT scan and they can go in there and say 'look, you've nicked that little thing there ..."'

When it comes to mining, he says, many people are interested in good information - but a lot of people are interested in preserving ignorance.

HEATLEY, AND Brown both say to ask a geologist about the report data - so we do.

Josh Adams, minerals director for New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals, explains that an aeromagnetic survey detects large bodies of rock that have been buried by strata over millions of years.

He says geologists know that with certain rock types there is a better chance of finding some metallic mineral deposits than others, but that you don't know for sure until you go and look.

"What this aeromagnetic survey does is give a first pass on the whereabouts of rock bodies, which have been buried many millions of years ago and hopefully tell us where are the areas that have a better chance of containing a mineral occurrence."

To really know if there is gold down there, he said, you have to drill a hole.

He also says drilling for gold is a much more benign process than drilling for oil and gas because the holes are only a fraction of the depth and environmentally of very little impact compared to other types of drilling.

And there's a long way to go before there's any actual mining.

Most international mining companies won't just be looking at Northland. They have what Adams describes as a "portfolio of opportunities" around the world and will rank the opportunity according to what they thought the value is.

Also at the Waitangi meeting is a geologist from Kaeo in the Far North, who contracts to mining companies.

Mike Moss, just back from a year's uranium mining in Tanzania, was about to go off to Rwanda to mine for gold.

He explains that once companies have analysed the data the next step would be to return to take samples from streams to find out what type of metals were in there.

After that, they would highlight a few zones they were interested in and probably take rock samples - then drill.

Only if it was seen to be economic after the exploratory drilling would they decide to go down the road of applying to mine.

They don't need to be confident of a good profit to go to the expense of exploration, he says. "No, we spend millions of dollars to try to find something and if we find something [we] get a return of much, much more."

Asked what he thinks about the anxiety of the local people over mining, he says it is just a matter of education.

"That [anxiety] is all created because there's not enough education about what will happen in an exploration - which actually creates very little damage at all - and most mining companies will repair any damage that's made.

"That's typical around the world, that's what we do."

Technology has advanced and miners also now know what not to do - for example, they don't mine for mercury these days, he says.

He agrees, though, that when you drill for gold mercury is generally also found.

Theoretically, by mining the gold and the mercury you were taking the mercury out of the system - and that is a good thing, he says.

Unless you spill it?

"Well, if you spill it, you clean it up. That's what the regulators are there for. Mining companies can't afford to have the bad publicity associated with doing things wrong."

Moss also believes mining in Northland would create jobs and boost the economy.

He says there would be an initial pulse of jobs created as companies needed workers to go around taking samples and so forth, and then if anything is found, the mining industry would be set up.

One mine could employ 1000 people, he says.

What happens now

* Northland has a wide variety of mineral deposits, including gold, silver, copper, aluminium, antimony, manganese, zinc and lead.

* A report from 2007 estimates gold and silver alone may be worth $1.5 billion.

* This week, data from a recent aeromagnetic survey of 13,590 sq km of Northland was released to various interests, including mining companies.

* The Government will announce in the next few weeks a competitive tender process for mineral exploration licences.

- NZ Herald

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