Conservation groups and climate campaigners have slammed a decision to allow an open-cast coal mine in Buller to go ahead because of its "overwhelming" economic benefits.
The West Coast Regional Council yesterday granted consents for Perth-based Bathurst Resources to mine 200 hectares in the Mt Rochfort Conservation Area on the Denniston Plateau, northeast of Westport, The Press reported.
The Escarpment Mine would become New Zealand's second-largest opencast coal mine, after the country's biggest, state-owned enterprise Solid Energy's Stockton mine, which is nearby.
Bathurst has said the mine would generate 424 new jobs and $138 million a year, including $41m in wages and salaries, during its five-year life.
The three hearing commissioners granted the consent, "but not without some considerable reservations and anguish," they said.
"The most and almost overwhelming factor that we had to consider is the enormous financial benefit that the mine will bring to the Buller district and the West Coast region." Bathurst's proposed mine would increase New Zealand's coal exports by up to 62 per cent.
Bathurst Resources managing director Hamish Bohannan said he was pleased with the outcome.
Fairdown/Whareatea Residents Association spokesman David Orchard criticised the decision saying the mine's economic benefits were overstated and short-term. "The impact is absolutely appalling, the impact on health is bound to be considerable."
Coal Action Network also condemned the decision.
"Burning coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel activity on the planet and there are huge reserves of coal left worldwide. If we allow them to be burnt, we have no chance of avoiding a climate catastrophe," said spokeswoman Frances Mountier.
"To be opening a new coal mine in this day and age is unbelievable. And the West Coast Environment Network said it was saddened by the decision, which would damage the eco-system of a stunning landscape.
The commissioners' decision had clearly been compromised by Department of Conservation (DOC) withholding detailed scientific evidence it had gathered on the impacts of the proposed mine, said spokeswoman Karen Mayhew.
It was unacceptable for consent for a coal mine to granted without considering climate change - which the commissioners had said they had no jurisdiction over, she said.
"Any short-term economic benefit will be outweighed by the long-term impacts on communities and ecosystems of adapting to climatic change if large-scale coal mining continues."
DOC chose not to get involved with the resource consent hearing because it believed its environmental concerns would be addressed through alternative channels.
Buller Mayor Pat McManus told NZPA Bathurst still had to negotiate with DOC and it could yet be appealed to the Environment Court.
Buller needed the mine, he said.
The Buller district was enjoying an economic boom because it was able to take advantage of its assets, new businesses were setting up in the district and Reefton, with a gold mine, was now thriving.
"We do need development. The main thing we've got on the West Coast is minerals and we need access to them."
He rejected criticism that the mine would accelerate climate change. New Zealand was a tiny exporter of coal on the world stage, and Buller coal was used for steel making.
"If we don't make steel the world doesn't go round. We have to make a choice."
Mining had to be done in an environmentally sound way as possible. The consent process was to make sure things were done properly and did not hinder the lives of people and to mitigate the effect on the environment, he said.