Fossil miner’s skink cash
Money for a skink conservation project was offered to offset the destruction of a gecko habitat that an open-pit mine would cause.
Before any resource consent applications for Foulden Maar were made Plaman Resources was busy making behind the scenes deals in the hope of mitigating resistance.
The proposed mining operation, which would have seen ancient fossils affected, was likely to destroy the habitat of at-risk geckos and plants. Money for a predator fence over 250 km drive away was proposed as an offset.
The fence would protect a different lizard to the species likely threatened by the mine.
Mining would have destroyed the habitat of the kōrero gecko, which is listed as at-risk and declining. A survey of the site found 50 kōrero geckos, and most were in the area where the pit would be dug.
The company, which hoped to mine diatomite and create a stock food additive, is now in receivership.
The skink funding proposal is another instance which has come to light where Plaman Resources offered financial inducements as part of building support for the project.
The company had suggested a scholarship to the University of Otago as well as funding for on-site scientists and had told local organisations funds were available for projects.
Documents released under the Official Information Act show Plaman Resources had been trying to smooth the wheels of future Resource Management Act consents needed to mine.
In a proposed letter of undertakings to the Department of Conservation (DoC) Plaman Resources said a number of undertakings would be proposed in resource consent applications. It said it was “enthusiastic” about a project to protect Otago skinks at Lindis Pass and agreed in principle to provide financial contributions commencing in 2022. It was thought some of the money would be spent on a predator fence.
It also agreed to set aside and plant 50 hectares of land which would be protected by covenant.
As well as helping future resource consents the discussion with DoC in the letter outlining Plaman Resources’ undertaking was also aimed at helping an Overseas Investment Office application to purchase 432 hectares of land required for mining infrastructure.
“We intend to provide a copy of this letter to the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) as a record of our discussions and to provide the OIO with comfort Plaman and DoC have agreed to continue a dialogue in the manner set out above in order to appropriately address the management of ecological matters associated with the Project.”
Fossils, fossils, fossils
The presence of fossils at the site was something not mentioned to the OIO in the application and Plaman Resources also failed to mention fossils when courting the support of local councils from 2018 onward.
A 2017 ecological report which Plaman Resources commissioned, also released under the OIA, makes the importance of the site abundantly clear.
The introductory paragraph mentions the scientific importance of Foulden Maar saying it has been the subject of 20 years of research and is significant on a global scale.
An entire section of the report is devoted to "paleoecological values", mentioned the site "has proven to be an exceptional site for preservation of c.23 million year-old fossil plant remains" and a further section which covered the effect mining would have on the site says:
“Excavation of the diatomite would potentially remove the source of information that would enable potential future research.”
It was only after questioning by the OIO the report was provided. It was the first indication the OIO recognised the land had scientifically significant fossils and it sparked contact with scientists who provided information about the importance of the site.
Plants and lizards
A survey completed for the ecological report found over 50 at-risk and declining kōrero gecko at the site as well as the not-threatened McCann's skink. No Otago skinks were found and it was thought unlikely they were present.
A small group of Senecio dunedinensis, a threatened plant, was found as well as three other at-risk plant species. The report suggested these would not survive once mining started.
The ecological report concluded the mine would end up clearing around 8.5 hectares of indigenous vegetation and would trigger several criteria which would mean resource consent would be required before work could be done. As it was clearing lizard habitat, it would also require a Wildlife Act Authority from DoC.
What's happening now
For now the lizards, plants and fossils at Foulden Maar are safe from diggers while Plaman Resources is in the hands of receivers. The future though, remains uncertain.
The Dunedin City Council could change the status of the land to be classed as an Outstanding Natural Feature. At a meeting in Dunedin on Tuesday environmental lawyer Sally Gepp suggested this would make the chance of new resource consents being granted like "pushing coprolites [fossilised dung] uphill".
Changing the land status would not impact on a resource consent issued in 2000. This consent allows mining at the site.