OceanaGold has been granted a mining permit allowing it to take further steps to mine under Conservation land near Waihi but will face a battle to get resource consent.
The company overnight said there could be up to 717,000 ounces of gold (valued at up to $2.1 billion at current elevated prices) at Wharekirauponga.
The miner, listed in Australia and Canada, says the permit grants it exclusive right to the resource and allows continued exploration and technical and environmental studies over the permitted area.
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OceanaGold and the company it bought five years ago, Newmont, have prospected in the area about 10km north of the Bay of Plenty for the past 15 years and alarmed conservationists. Oceana says that if the plan goes ahead, a network of tunnels would be driven under the bush land with a portal on private land at the edge of the Conservation area. Ore for processing would be transported to the company's plant on the outskirts of the town of about 5000.
The Wharekirauponga project has been running as the company prepares to launch into expanding its open pit mining in the town. As part of Project Quattro it would rehabilitate and expand the existing pit, mine a new one, expand its processing plant and make a new rock stack and build a third tailings dam. While production has slowed in its operations over the past months, it says its plans will create hundreds of new jobs.
Coromandel Watchdog is already fighting the plans for Wharekirauponga, home to the endangered Archey's Frog, and has already taken court action to block the company's expansion of tailings dams near the town.
Watchdog chairwoman Catherine Delahunty said the mining permit was the first step towards environmental destruction, toxic waste production and risks to water quality as well as rare species.
''This land was set aside for protection and recreation not a toxic industry . The Minister of Conservation could deny access to the area or the resource consents to mine could fail in court, but we have lost all faith that the Government means to protect DOC land. Nevertheless we will fight this every step of the way,'' she said.
OceanaGold says it recognises the sensitivity of Wharekirauponga land and its ecology, which is an important recreational area for walkers and campers.
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''That's why any potential mining operation we may undertake in the future would only be underground – not at the surface level. And although we have tested enough rock to be confident that the gold discovered at the site could support a mine, we still need to undertake significant, detailed studies before we apply for resource consents.''
Green Party candidate for Coromandel, Pamela Grealey, said people have been kept out of areas at Wharekirauponga for several years now by private prospecting and Oceana's extension of mining there was a less-publicised element of the company's expansion.''
"The Green Party is absolutely committed to no new mining on or under public conservation land, and I don't want to see any mining on the Coromandel Peninsula,'' she said.
Coalition partner, Labour promised 'no new mining on Conservation land' soon after forming the Government but has been largely silent on this since. Associate Finance Minister David Parker and Finance Minister Grant Robertson overturned a decision by Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage to allow the foreign owned OceanaGold to buy land for the tailings dam extension. That has led to a judicial review taken by Coromandel Watchdog.
OceanaGold president and chief executive Michael Holmes said the mining permit was and important step in the permitting phase for Wharekirauponga (WKP.)
"The Waihi District has the potential to extend Waihi's mine life to 2036 and beyond while providing meaningful socio-economic benefits for stakeholders. WKP is part of an exciting development plan underway in New Zealand and we look forward to working in partnership with government and local communities to advance our projects in the Waihi District and contribute to the post-COVID economic recovery."
During the next few years OceanaGold will continue to drill the WKP prospect while seeking resource consent before starting development if it is successful.