By Alison Smith

Hauraki Mayor John Tregidga has come out swinging over the blocked sale of land to mining company OceanaGold by Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage.

A $23,000 a year income in a mining economy or a circular model of carbon neutral New Zealand - Minister Sage challenges the 'Gold Town' of Waihi to question the value of mining, in her decision under the Overseas Investment Act to halt the sale.

Ms Sage refused consent for the foreign-owned company to purchase 178ha of rural and bush land which it needed for new tailings storage in a reservoir and impoundment on the outskirts of town.

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It would have allowed OceanaGold to prepare for a new six-year Project Quattro to start in 2030, securing 250 full time jobs and 100 full time contractors' work for another nine years.

Hauraki Mayor John Tregidga accused the Minister of putting politics ahead of the economic wellbeing of Waihi.

"Quite frankly I challenge the Labour Government to stand up and say they support this stance of hers. The Labour Government needs to come out very clearly and show its hand on the future for mining, not gas or oil, but extractive industries of minerals.

"Until they do, I'm going to say mining hasn't finished in Waihi."

Among the Minister's reasons for declining consent, she said the tailings impoundment would destroy around 5ha of a 15ha area of indigenous forest supposed to be protected as a Significant Natural Area under the Council's District Plan.

Whilst existing jobs would be secured for nine years, Quattro did not appear to create any new jobs.

Between 30-40 workers would be involved in mine closure for three to five years after operations ceased in 2028 and this provided time for the affected community to attract alternative investments "in sustainable enterprises", she said.

"Nine years is likely to be sufficient to establish new employment opportunities, particularly if New Zealand continues to transition to a low-emissions economy."

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Mayor Tregidga said he believed it was not up to the Minister to make such a call.

"She's a senior Minister and it still surprises me that as a minority party with such a small support base, she can make this decision. We have had mining since forever."

Sage and Associate Finance Minister David Clark considered the application and formed different views as to whether the "substantial and identifiable benefit" to New Zealand test in the Act was met.

Clark believes that the proposed investment is likely to create substantial and identifiable benefits.

In reasons for the decision, Sage considered mining tailings reservoirs created environmental risks arising with direct and indirect economic effects.

There was no certainty OceanaGold will invest in 'new' risk management technologies for tailings processing. Related clean-up costs may fall on the local community, council and central government.

The Waihi mine has been operating for some time yet the median income in the Hauraki District is only $23,000. This suggested that the applicant's investment and operation has not necessarily generated substantial and identifiable benefits for the immediately affected community at Waihi.

On the issue of economic interests: "The Minister recognises that encouraging sustainable economic activity is the best way to increase the long-term wellbeing of New Zealanders. To this end, the Government's priorities include a "broader measure of success" that goes beyond a narrow definition of economic benefit, supporting "thriving and sustainable regions" and transitioning to a "clean, green and carbon neutral New Zealand", the report reasons for the decision document noted.

The company announced it has now had to "re-evaluate our options" as it conducts studies around the future of the Waihi operation in the longer term.

OceanaGold has spent more than $60m conducting exploration drilling at Waihi and at Wharekirauponga, 10km north of Waihi, and in February received consents for Project Martha to operate until 2028.

"As a condition of OceanaGold's purchase of the Waihi gold mine operations in 2015, the Overseas Investment Office stipulated that the company must commit to extending the life of the mine," the company told residents via the Waihi Leader.

"Since taking ownership of the Waihi mining operations, OceanaGold has actively pursued this objective."

It says the Waihi mine and OceanaGold's Macraes mine in the South Island have, between them, made over 80 applications to the Overseas Investment Office for permission to purchase land. This is the first time that an application has been declined.

The application under the Overseas Investment Act was for land enabling the construction of a new mining tailings storage facility like that which exists in Waihi. This would allow for consents to be applied for under a new 'Project Quattro' that would see mining continue in the area for another nine years.

Mining is currently the biggest contributor to economic growth in the Hauraki District accounting for 22.5 per cent of its GDP, and exploration work by OceanaGold shows there are sufficient resources for this to continue for many years to come.

The Mayor said the decision showed a "blatant disregard" for the livelihoods of more than 360 local workers and their families.

"For something so critical to the economic wellbeing of this district to be tossed out on a political whim like this is completely unpalatable to me," he said.

Comparing mining operations overseas and past practices to modern mining in Waihi was "really unhelpful".

"This town was founded on mining, and there are robust processes in place to ensure any potential adverse environmental effects are managed and mitigated. It's not a minister's role or my role to pre-empt decisions on this, that's what the Resource Management Act is for."

"This is a decision New Zealanders need to make. If they do, we will have to put other things into action, but we've got 10 years."

Residents in the community have expressed mixed views, including questioning how the town can move forward without mining.

For 15 years Eddie Morrow has been driving community initiatives that provide an alternative to gold mining - and the Waihi Gold Discovery Centre is the biggest in town.

Last year it won the Regional Tourism and Hospitality Award for an interactive experience that draws people from New Zealand and internationally, with its focus on Waihi's golden heritage.

Visitors learn about the town's 140-year gold history, can take a tour of the Martha open pit mine across the road, or hire a bike to explore Waihi and ride the Hauraki Rail Trail to the Karangahake Gorge.

The centre was established with a $1.8m Government investment from the Regional Initiative Fund, and houses the Waihi i-SITE which receives an annual $135,000 contribution from Hauraki District Council.

In February last year Eddie bought the centre with Bill Young. "We get both domestic and international visitors and they're really positive about what a great looking little town Waihi is. They're really taken by the amount of things to see and do."

He believes a lot has been achieved through Vision Waihi Trust, which was set up to assist community projects and initiatives that might add value to Waihi's future sustainability.

However he acknowledged that the ups and downs of a multi-national mining company has allowed the Council and community to be less proactive about finding alternatives to mining as a source of revenue.

"Our Council does understand Waihi pretty well and what makes it tick, and mining has been a big part of the pie here for a long time.

"The big thing really is, as a community, Waihi might come up with some great ideas but the hard part is how you resource them.

"I think if we don't say 'what happens life post mining?', we are putting the blinkers on a bit. You have to seek alternatives because if you don't, you are just going to stick your head in the sand, and that's not a solution to anything, is it?

"Post-mining will creep up on us, and what we're trying to do here is generate revenue for the community through the tourism industry," says Eddie.

Mayor Tregidga said mining companies had taken the heat off progressing projects highlighted under a 2020 vision produced in consultation with the community and OceanaGold's predecessor Newmont Waihi.

"A lot of it has been put on hold. We set that up because there was a feeling that mining would finish in 2012. We've all thought mining is here for 10 years, there's such a lead time that we have to plan.

"I've always been saying we've got mining here for 20-30 years. This decision is a bit of a hiccup. I'm sure common sense will prevail for Waihi."