environment

Scientists reject fossil land swap

As anger grew at the proposal to mine a scientifically important fossil site to make stock food, the company tried to offer to swap Foulden Maar for nearby Hindon Maar to quell scientists' opposition

The same day Plaman Resource’s chief executive was giving polite interviews to New Zealand journalists, another meeting was taking place.

Craig Pilcher, Plaman Resources' NZ general manager, was meeting with the president of the Geoscience Society of New Zealand, Dr Jennifer Eccles, and via Skype, University of Otago’s Daphne Lee.

During the Friday May 24 meeting, which Lee described as "increasing in pressure", Pilcher made an offer.

If the scientists gave up the fight over Foulden Maar, the company would promise not to mine another area which it holds an exploration permit over.

“Plaman basically forced us to choose between the pyramids of Giza and the Sistine Chapel.”

University of Otago Paleogenetics Laboratory co-director Nic Rawlence has been one of the scientists leading the fight against the mining of Foulden Maar. He summed up the offer:

“Plaman basically forced us to choose between the pyramids of Giza and the Sistine Chapel.”

The Hindon Maar area is around 25 kilometres from Foulden Maar. It is a set of five maars.

“They’re around 15 million years old as opposed to 23. They are a completely different window into a lost world. It’s non-comparable with Foulden Maar. They are around 20 to 30 metres deep that we know of and it’s all calcium carbonate-rich clay, there’s no diatomite, so the sites are useless to Plaman.”

The minerals exploration permit Plaman holds over the area expired May 28, four days after the swap offer was made, although the impending expiration was not mentioned at the meeting. The land is not owned by Plaman Resources.

There is a pending extension to the exploration permit.

“I get the feeling Plaman seem to think we are stupid. They’re trying to offer us Hindon, for letting them destroy Foulden.

“Either they know they’re non-comparable and they’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes because their exploration permit is about to expire or they don’t know they’re non-comparable and they’re just going: ‘Well if we give them one fossil site then they’ll be pleased because at least one is being preserved’,” said Rawlence.

"What we did for science is now spelling doom for the deposit. It’s just horrendous.”

University of Otago’s Daphne Lee said Foulden Maar and Hindon Maar couldn’t be more different.

She said her response to Pilcher when he made the offer was that it was “ridiculous” and immediately rejected it.

“Foulden Maar has got this amazing climate record which is not found anywhere else on earth. It’s also got these amazing fossils which are not found anywhere else on earth."

The climate record at Hindon Maar is from a different era and is shorter than Foulden Maar's.

Lee said there were 120 metres' worth of annual climate records contained in Foulden Maar’s layers. In comparison, Hindon Maar had 20 to 30 metres.

Fossils found so far at Hindon Maar have been equally as important as what’s been found at Foulden Maar. Exquisite details have been preserved, like the eyes and mouth of a young Galaxias (whitebait) and cycad leaves. Applications for funding have been made to continue scientific research at Hindon Maar.

Lee said during the conversation there was increasing pressure from Pilcher to shift scientists’ positions “both in the amount of the deposit they [Plaman Resources] would set aside, and financial incentives".

“I think he is somewhat baffled his attempts have met with increasing resistance.”

Lee feels in this instance commercial mining is incompatible with scientific research.

Ironically, the research which may have led Plaman Resources to decide Foulden Maar was economically viable had come from scientists and been funded by taxpayers through a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden grant, said Lee.

“We drove the 183-metre-long core. That was the first time anybody had got to the bottom of the diatomite. Previous estimates were guesses, maybe 50 metres, which made it a far-from-economic deposit.”

She said the more she dwelled on it, the angrier it made her.

“ ... Public information obtained for scientific research and public good, public education, is now in danger of being totally destroyed by this offshore company. What we did for science is now spelling doom for the deposit. It’s just horrendous.”

Geoscience Society president Dr Jennifer Eccles said the society was currently split on its attitude toward the mine. Since 2000, it has consistently said parts of the mine needed to be left intact.

Eccles said some members were opposed to any mining at all and worried species new to science would be destroyed forever.

“This is not a situation of collateral damage; the economic product is the very material of high scientific value.”

The other view was more pragmatic, said Eccles.

“While Plaman’s original and amended plans are not currently at all acceptable, the mining process, with appropriate conditions to operate legally enshrined in the RMA consent, could provide access and resourcing for science during exploitation as well as providing perpetual protection for the intact portion of the deposit to be left behind that we would hope to be on the order of 50 percent.”

There is a worry even for those taking a pragmatic stance. If the maar is drained in order to be mined, the fossils would dry out and be lost. Eccles said if this was shown to be a risk, most members would be against any mining.

This week, members are consulting on a potential resubmission to the Overseas Investment Office, with a draft currently being circulated. Eccles said it contained “strengthened concerns” but was still factual in nature.

Eccles said Pilcher told her during the meeting on May 24 he would go back to his bosses with the suggestions made by the Geoscience Society. She said she hadn't heard anything since. Currently the publicly-stated stance of the society is 50 percent of the deposit should be preserved.

“They [Plaman Resources] wanted a dialogue about what would be required to get a geological blessing on going forward and our community is split on that.”

Last week the Dunedin City Council opted to support the preservation of Foulden Maar. Its original letter of support for the Overseas Investment Office application to purchase land surrounding Foulden Maar - which would improve the economic viability of the mining proposal - has been set aside.

The University of Otago yesterday released an official statement regarding Foulden Maar’s future. Deputy vice-chancellor (research and enterprise) Richard Blaikie said while the university was grateful for the access it had been given to the maar in the past, it believed the “globally significant” site should be preserved.

“Thus, preservation in perpetuity of substantial and meaningful proportions of the full geological record of this site should be a primary consideration in any decisions that are made about future use.”

Newsroom contacted Plaman Resources last week regarding the swap offer and received no response.

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