environment

Southern discomfort at fossil mining plans

Newsroom looks at what’s been happening behind the scenes with the Foulden Maar proposal in Dunedin and Clutha, including the new Dunedin City District Plan, an unusual resource consent and 148 withheld emails.

In a council meeting on Tuesday, Dunedin City Councillor Aaron Hawkins plans to stand up and ask that the council recognises the scientific importance of Foulden Maar and support its preservation.

“I'd like to think that in a city that prides itself on education and research that something that has been made quite clear to us has significant value would be worth protecting.”

He said conversations he’s had with members of the public indicate they are not in favour of digging up Foulden Maar’s diatomite for pig food.

The debate today is in stark contrast to a letter the council was supplied to the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) in support of Plaman Resources' bid to buy an additional piece of land which surrounds their mining operation.

The letter has since been asked to be set aside by Dunedin’s Mayor Dave Cull after Newsroom raised the issue of scientifically important fossils at the site.

“The media reports appear to show that that the full extent of the environmental impacts and loss of "pre-eminent" fossil cache at the Foulden Maar were not adequately disclosed at the presentation you gave us last year. At the presentation, we were given the impression that the site only contained black diatomaceous earth, and now we have information that it could contain fossil records of incalculable value.”

Cull also asked to be given a copy of a leaked report which showed a disparaging attitude toward locals' ability to fight the mining company in the Environment Court.

Cull said he has since been quickly shown the 112-page report but not given a copy. He said this would be discussed at today’s meeting.

Hawkins thinks any resource consents Plaman Resources makes will need to be heard by independent commissioners as current staff could not be considered impartial.

Consent concerns

Local Middlemarch residents Andrea Bosshard and Shane Loader have expressed concern about the locals having a say in any resource consents the company applies for.

This extends beyond the dismissive sentence in the leaked report:

"Any appeal to the Environment Court is likely to come from a small number of local residents, who are not well-resourced and will not have comprehensive technical reports to the same extent as Plaman Global would have."

There’s good reason for their concern.

A discharge to air consent given by the Otago Regional Council in regard to the likely chalk-like dust the mine will likely create was granted without notifying the public. It expires in July 2020.

A June 2018 Plaman Resources project overview document showed mining infrastructure spread out beyond the currently owned land (white) and onto the block Plaman has applied to purchase (pink). The stage 1 waste area covers the current homestead. Original Map Source: DCC CC BY 3.0

Even more concerning is a curious non-notified mining consent given to the previous mine owner Featherston Resources.

The consent lists the 42-hectare block, which Featherston Resources owned, and also included the 432-hectare block which it never owned.

It says a house not owned by the mining company, or even on its land, would be used.

“The existing homestead will be used for offices and staff amenities,” says the consent, which was granted in 2000.

Newsroom has asked Dunedin City Council if a newer resource consent exists which rectifies this.

District Plan court cases

As Dunedin has been working towards putting a new district plan in place, Plaman Resources has been busy applying to join Environment Court appeals to its plan.

Seven applications to join proceedings have been lodged by Plaman Resources.

Listed reasons include concern that mining and quarrying could be prohibited on land identified as 'outstanding natural landscapes', concern indigenous biodiversity could mean 'areas of significant conservation value' could be identified on private land without a public consultation, and a desire to be able to clear up to 2m-wide areas of indigenous vegetation for tracks or fences.

Another appeal the company has applied to join lists their concern at restoration requirements post mining: “Restoring land to its previous state is not always achievable. The relief therefore imposes unreasonable restrictions on mining activities which may not be possible to satisfy.”

Clutha’s slew of PGP emails

Along with Dunedin, Clutha District Council has been supportive of Plaman Resouces' OIO application to buy additional land.

Plaman Resources have indicated it may truck diatomite 100 kilometres from Middlemarch to Milton to a $36 million processing plant it hopes to build.

The plant would provide much-needed jobs for Milton locals.

A plan change has been proposed to create a large industrial area which could contain the plant, and there’s been behind-the-scenes discussion that taxpayer funds could be used for rail infrastructure which would be beneficial for the overseas-based Plaman Resources

While it appears no funding application has been made to the $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund, set up to fund regional economic development, there’s been plenty of emails flying back-and-forth.

These have been between Plaman Resources, Clutha District Council staff and a former New Zealand First chief of staff who describes himself as a self-employed consultant specialising in government relations.

An Official Information Act request submitted to the council by Bosshard and Loader resulted in the release of a few emails and the withholding of nearly 150 emails for commercial reasons.

A spreadsheet was supplied with the sender and subject line of each email.

Thirty-six emails contained PGF, an abbreviation of Provincial Growth Fund, in the subject line. Many relate to KiwiRail and the feasibility of a freight hub. This appears to be related to a 289-hectare area in the Tokomairiro Plain potentially becoming an industrial zone.

Some industries already operate in the area and the letter of support supplied by the Clutha District Council to the project says Plaman Resources processing plant would be there. The council plan includes the provision for two railway sidings. This would allow processed diatomite to be transported to Port Chalmers for shipping overseas.

Among the emails withheld was an exchange between Clutha District Council chief executive Steve Hill and the lobbyist David Broome with a subject line “Dinner on Tuesday: following up [UNCLASSIFIED]”.

Newsroom contacted the Clutha District Council last week asking about the purpose of the dinner. There has been no response.

Read more:

Answers from the fossil miner

Unjustifiable vandalism and grand promises

Fossil-dirt nutrition claims under doubt

Dunedin Mayor demands facts from fossil-mining company

Who is the fossil mining company?

Opposition grows to fossil mining project

Dunedin's 'Pompeii' to be mined to make pig food

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