Foulden Maar fight rumbles on

A petition is adding to the growing weight of opposition to a proposal to mine fossils for pig food. Will stopping the land sale be enough?

A 10,000-signature petition will be submitted to the Overseas Investment Office opposing the purchase of land which could make a fossil-mining operation viable.

Just over a month ago few people knew what a maar was or that New Zealand was home to one of the most unique maars in the Southern Hemisphere.

Even fewer knew an offshore company planned to mine the maar to make an additive to pig food. Fossils and climate records from 23 million years ago would be destroyed in the process.

The company did not expect much opposition to their plans and a leaked report showed it was dismissive of the ability of “not well-resourced” locals to fight it in Environment Court appeals.

At that point a handful of locals including Andrea Bosshard and Shane Loader were opposed to the plan. Loader’s interpretation of the comments in the leaked report was the company thought the locals were “too poor and too ignorant to put up a fight”.

Opposition has since ballooned to over 10,000 petition signatures, with the science community and organisations formerly in favour of the proposal pulling their support.

The petition will be sent to the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) as a submission against Plaman Resources' application to buy a 432-hectare farm surrounding the mine site it already owns. This larger farm it is planning to buy will give more room for the open-pit mine to spread out the infrastructure needed to mine. It has been reported to be necessary to ensure the economic viability of the operation.

The director of the University of Otago’s paleogenetics laboratory Dr Nic Rawlence described the response to the petition as “utterly fantastic”.

“The Save Foulden Maar movement has been able to educate the public about why this is important and turn around the position of the Dunedin City Count to preserve the Maar.”

The OIO process accepts submissions until a decision is made public and in the last few weeks organisations have reversed or updated their previous submissions to the OIO office.

Organisations change their tune

Dunedin City Council has chosen to support the preservation of the maar as a scientific resource. A letter previously supporting the OIO application has been revoked, and a new submission now opposes the purchase.

The council’s letter to the OIO also noted the University of Otago’s opposition to the mine. In an unusual step the University of Otago, which had previously been happy to support its employees' right to their own opinion on the mine, issued a formal statement.

The statement said preservation of a substantial part of the site should be the primary consideration in decisions made about the future of the maar.

The Geoscience Society has also submitted updated information to the OIO noting concerns about how mining even a portion of the diatomite could affect the water table and destroy what’s left behind. It suggests a full hydrological and geotechnical analysis be undertaken.

The letter also recommends the site should be recognised as an Outstanding Natural Feature and suggests it would be well-suited to becoming part of a UNESCO Geopark.

The OIO has described the decision as “complex” and said it will take more time. It needs to assess whether the investors have the required good character and business acumen and the purchase is of benefit to New Zealand.

It also needs to assess whether the appropriate level of advertising has occurred. By law, the land must have been made available to New Zealanders to purchase. The OIO said one ad was placed in the Otago Daily Times on February 4, 2017. It appeared on page 52.

The farm was advertised for one day in 2017. The advertisement appeared on page 52 of the Otago Daily Times. Image: Supplied

The application was initially lodged February 2018. Most applications take six months to assess. The OIO said it has received 25 submissions additional to what it was originally considering. Four of those are revised or additional submissions from previous submitters.

The decision will need to be approved by Minister for Land Information Eugenie Sage and Associate Minister of Finance David Clark. If either minister concludes an assessment criterion is not met, the application will be declined.

However, declining the land purchase does not necessarily mean the fossils are safe.

The threat

Plaman Resources already own 42 hectares of the maar. The purchase of the small block was approved by the OIO in 2014.

The OIO said it did not seek information from scientists when approving the sale and it was not aware of the existence of fossils on the land at that point.

Scandals related to Plaman’s Resources largest shareholder Iris Corporation, which may have influenced the OIO’s investor assessment, had also not yet occurred.

Plaman Resources had suggested setting aside 5 hectares of the maar for scientists if the sale of the larger block is approved. If the application is denied, this offer is off the table, according to Plaman Resources chief executive Peter Plakidis. This is despite previous reporting on the leaked Goldman Sachs report indicating that without the larger land the project would not be feasible.

The pink shaded area is the land Plaman Resources would like to buy. The clear area in the centre of the pink is the 42 hectares the company already owns. Map Source: DCC CC BY 3.0

The options

There are two options available to save the fossils.

The first was suggested by former Prime Minister Helen Clark who described the potential loss of scientific knowledge as distressing.

“What I can’t understand is why no one’s ever applied for Scientific Reserve Status for it under the Reserves Act … it would seem to be an obvious case.”

Land can be purchased from an owner, or land can be swapped. Plaman Resources paid around $650,000 for the 42 hectares and over $5 million purchasing the mining company.

Another suggestion for protection is through local government. The land could be designated as an Outstanding Natural Feature in the Dunedin City District Plan, however this has limitations.

Dunedin councillor Aaron Hawkins, who raised a motion to recognise the scientific value of the maar and support its preservation, said a report is currently being prepared investigating what options the council can pursue.

He anticipates one of the options would be a variation to the district plan to make the area an Outstanding Natural Feature but said this would be most helpful against future use of the land where a resource consent is not already held. 

“So long as it is owned by someone with a resource consent to run it as a mine there’s very little you can do. The Outstanding Natural Feature process wouldn’t trump an existing resource consent.”

In certain situations an enforcement order can be used to force compliance with consent conditions if they have been breached, and in some occasions a judicial review can be used, but a review of an older consent would be unusual.

Hawkins also suggested the Government could purchase 42 hectares currently owned by Plaman Resources. 

“That’s one of the other requests in the petition, is to have it acquired for the purposes of creating a scientific reserve. It would be fair to say that would be unusual, but it’s not impossible.”

He said the ideal solution would be for Plaman Resources to "give up and sell the land".

He said a meeting in Middlemarch, the town closest to the proposed mine, during the weekend was a full house.

“My feeling is what support there was for the mining proposal is diminishing.”

Locals Bosshard and Loader are still optimistic the maar will become a geopark and be used for science and boost tourism in the region.

“There are so many amazing kinds of geological features in the Strath Taieri, not just Foulden Maar - which is the jewel in the crown.”

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