health & science

Financial offer dangled for fossil mine support

In a bid to get scientists to give a fossil-mining-for-pig-food venture their blessing, the mining company made a number of offers - including funding staff - to help get its project over the line.

Funding was on the table for the University of Otago if it abandoned its opposition to open-pit mining plans at a fossil-filled site.

The university's associate professor Daphne Lee and Andrew Gorman attended an Auckland meeting between the Geoscience Society and Plaman Resources about the mining venture via Skype.

Lee told Newsroom there was increasing pressure during the meeting to change the stance of the scientists. Offers were made “both in the amount of the deposit they [Plaman Resources] would set aside, and financial incentives".

Otago's Foulden Maar contains fossils from 23 million years ago, as well as climate records from an era when ice sheets in Antartica were starting to melt.

A swap was also proposed. If scientists gave up their fights to save the maar, the company would promise not to mine nearby Hindon Maar, which it held an exploration permit for.

Plaman Resources’ offers were rejected immediately and this week the University of Otago released an official statement leaving no doubt about its stance.

Deputy vice-chancellor (research and enterprise) Richard Blaikie described it as a special and globally significant site which was important for determining the future of the climate and environment.

“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.”

"That’s just not going to fly with the science value of the maar.”

Gorman, who was with Lee at the meeting, said he didn’t feel a discussion about covering the cost of staff on site was a bribe, but that Plaman Resources was looking at what it would take to have the university's geology department “come on side with them”.

“They were looking at a way science in general could benefit from a mine like this.”

Gorman said the department traditionally supported some mining and many of its students found employment in mines. There’s been a positive history between the university and small-scale mining efforts previously made at Foulden Maar.

“I think where Daphne is rightly concerned is that Plaman, by all evidence we have seen so far, is intent on proposing something that would empty the maar of all of its diatomite. That’s just not going to fly with the science value of the maar.”

Plaman Resources had previously said it had proposed a geologist would be on site at all times as part of a plan to recover fossils.

When the site reaches full production, Plaman estimates 500,000 tonnes of processed diatomite a year will be extracted in a 24 hour a day operation. Plaman Resources said the diatomite when first mined was 65 percent water before it's dried for processing, taking the amount to 825,000 tonnes per year likely to be dug out.

Even if the mine operated all 365 days of the year, this would mean 94 tonnes per hour would be excavated.

“We were talking about the cost it would take. If you look at hiring palaeontologists to be there full-time, you would have to have a whole team of these people to be processing the fossils at the rate at which Plaman is going to be taking them out. That would be eight or 10 post-graduate students working full-time.”

Gorman said at that rate of excavation, preservation would be impossible, and material would likely be destroyed as it was dug out.

“If you’ve seen Daphne go in, they’re going in with kid gloves almost to get these fossils out. They’re so fragile. If you were to go in there with a big front-end loader and dig it up, most of it would be destroyed.”

Even if large blocks were taken out in chunks, Gorman said the process of going through it would be time-consuming.

“I watched one of Daphne’s post docs [post doctorate students] up there and he’ll spend a couple of days in a little pit that’s two metres by three metres and a metre deep and basically go through with a pocket knife and flick through all the different layers of diatomite. It’s a really slow process to do this well.”

The anthers of this flower (left) found in Foulden Maar were so well preserved a grain of pollen (right) was recovered. Photos: Supplied

Geoscience Society president Dr Jennifer Eccles said the financial offer was implied funding for research staff and facilities.

“It was around resourcing of a real-time scientific operation during extraction. The rate they are bringing it [diatomite] up far exceeds the capacity of university-employed or [Crown Research Institute]-employed researchers to be able to deal with it. Things would be lost because people wouldn’t have time to work on it.”

As well as staff with access to the site, there would need to be facilities such as refrigerated containers to preserve finds.

“So, they pay for researchers, palaeontologists to be on site, with all the health and safety inductions and access to the full site. They would need refrigerated containers and there would be resourcing required. We weren’t directly talking money; it was more just about what it would take to keep pace with the discoveries being exposed.”

The Geoscience Society is currently consulting with its members on an updated submission to the Overseas Investment Office. Eccles said the draft was factual in nature and contained strengthened concerns.

The society’s stance has been that 50 percent of the maar should be preserved.

Plaman Resources is currently awaiting an OIO decision on its proposal to purchase a farm surrounding the maar, which would improve the economic viability of the mining operation. The company has no other business investments outside of mining, prospecting and exploration permits in Otago.

Read more:

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