Legal action by Forest & Bird (F&B) has prompted a U-turn from the Buller District Council over the proposed Te Kuha coal mine.

The council decided last night to rescind a preliminary decision it made last September, allowing Rangitira Developments Ltd (RDL) access to Westport's water conservation reserve for the mine.

The proposed mine, 12km from Westport, would disturb about 104ha of council land, mostly within Westport's water reserve. A 7.2km access road would disturb another 35.1ha.

F&B had asked the High Court in Christchurch for a judicial review of the council's decision. The conservation group said the council had violated the Reserves Act 1977 requiring administration of the reserve "in a manner consistent with its purposes".

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Last night's extraordinary council meeting was closed to the public.

The council issued a media release this morning, saying it had changed its mind because of legal uncertainty over the correct approach to deciding access arrangements on reserve land.

"Rather than spending resources defending the council's earlier decision before the High Court when the correct legal position is unclear, the council decided it is more efficient to rescind its earlier decision and wait until the legal position is clarified before reconsidering Rangitira's application," the statement said.

Stevenson responds

RDL subsidiary Stevenson Mining, which would operate the mine, said it understood the council's reasoning.

F&B's judicial review had raised a legal issue that should be sorted out, said Stevenson's chief operating officer Anne Brewster.

Stevenson would be seeking a declaratory judgment from the High Court, to clarify the "grey" area, and would then reapply to the council for access.

"We don't think there's a real problem with the law - it's Forest & Bird's concern. The legal advice we have obtained is quite clear, but Forest & Bird have a different view," Brewster said.

There would be no impact on the project, apart from the time and money required to obtain a declaratory judgment.

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Most of the mine was on council's water reserve, so the mine could not proceed without access to the reserve.

"However, we are confident that we will eventually get the access we require to go mining," Brewster said.

The project also needs access to 12ha of Department of Conservation land. Brewster said RDL/Stevenson hoped that decision was imminent, given they had made the application three years ago.

It was now a joint decision between the ministers of conservation and energy and resources.

The mine is also seeking resource consent from the Buller District and West Coast regional councils.

The consent applications should be publicly notified soon and hearings were likely in July/August this year, Brewster said.

Asked how much the project had cost so far, she replied: "A significant amount of money, however as we are a family-owned company we prefer not to say the dollar amount.

"We have been working on this project for six years."

Asked if they were tempted to give up, she said: "Absolutely not, we are fully committed to this project. We have invested too much effort, time and money, but more importantly the West Coast needs this mine for the benefit of the community."

F&B not claiming victory

F&B chief executive Kevin Hague said it had argued the council needed to use criteria under the Reserves Act when it considered granting RDL access. Instead, the council had decided it would sort any issues during the resource consent process, he said.

Hague said that superficially, yesterday's council reversal looked like a victory for F&B - in fact, it was just about reshuffling the legal issues.

F&B maintained Te Kuha was the wrong place for a coal mine. "This is a place of high ecological value and we want to hang on to it for that purpose."

The coal measure ecosystem had been lost at Stockton mine and needed to be defended elsewhere, Hague said.

Bathurst Resources' Denniston Escarpment mine had gained resource consent despite F&B's opposition, but was now mothballed.

"Stockton is a moonscape. At Denniston you've got piles of coal for which there isn't a viable market, standing next to disused machinery, and it's kind of the worst predictions that were made at the time of that case.

"Why on earth should we open up yet another area, sacrifice yet another part of that coal measure vegetation for a scheme that at best is probably a wing and a prayer."

Like Bathurst, Stevenson would start digging once it gained resource consent, regardless of whether the mine was commercially viable, he said.

"At that point we've lost the natural values but we haven't particularly gained anything."

- Westport News