Australian coalmining company Bathurst has its eyes on another historic West Coast town - Charleston.

Bathurst has stirred controversy with its proposal for an extensive coalmine at Denniston, and its wholly-owned subsidiary Buller Coal has just been granted a coal exploration permit for 1243ha at Charleston, extending over the old gold township and inland towards Darkies and Argyle creeks.

Charleston was the site of the first open-cast coalmine on the West Coast, in 1944, with the coal only a few metres below the surface.

A century earlier, Charles Heaphy first reported "a seam of capital coal'' exposed in a stream south of the Waitakere (now known as the Nile River) when he walked down the Coast with Thomas Brunner in 1846.

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Historian Les Wright said the original main street of Charleston, Princes Street, was also known as Coal Street because it passed through a cutting of coal near Constant Bay.

Coal pits were located in several places around Charleston, mostly along Darkies Terrace Rd, including one started in the 1950s on the former Charleston School site.

A report by Simon Nathan in 1972 estimated that 500,000 tonnes of coal had been mined from the Charleston-Brighton coalfield up to then, with a peak of more than 80,000 tonnes in 1944-52.

Although close to the surface, Charleston coal is reportedly high in sulphur but with fairly low ash. One historical account from 1866-67 says the deposit was so shallow, one man accidentally ignited a seam with his campfire and after it had smouldered for a year or so the goldfield commissioner called for tenders to put it out.

Bathurst general manager corporate relations Sam Aarons said it was a "low key expression of interest'' which would involve five to seven exploratory holes over five years.

Sometimes the company had picked up permits, done work, and relinquished them.

"This is not a priority for us, the Escarpment (Denniston) is.''