Future still uncertain for Foulden Maar’s fossils
A withdrawn OIO land purchase application reduces - but does not eliminate - the risk that scientifically important fossils could be destroyed.
An application to the Overseas Investment Office to purchase 432 hectares of land in Middlemarch to extend the footprint of a proposed mine has been withdrawn.
The applicant, Plaman Resources, went into receivership in June. Before this the OIO had asked the company to respond to several queries raised as a result of 42 third-party submissions.
The receivers, KordaMentha withdrew the purchase application on Wednesday:
“The Receivers continue to assess all available options to best manage and/or realise Plaman’s assets and business. As part of this continuing process, we do not consider that there is any utility, at this time at least, in progressing the OIO application in its current form, or responding to the various third party submissions on the application.”
What does this mean?
When Plaman went into receivership, KordaMentha said all options were on the table, including recapitalisation. The withdrawing of the OIO application could mean this avenue is now thought to be unlikely.
The 432 hectares would have made mining easier. The mine was to be open-pit, with diatomite extending down 180 metres. Digging out that depth of deposit would take up a large amount of space.
The Save Foulden Maar Society – formed to attempt to protect the fossil site – sees the withdrawal as a positive step.
“We are pleased that Plaman Resources have withdrawn their application with the Overseas Investment Office and believe it is another step towards protecting Foulden Maar in perpetuity,” said chairperson Kimberley Collins.
A small step isn’t a leap to fossil safety though. There’s still 42 hectares of land owned by Plaman Resources which contains 80 percent of the maar with an uncertain fate.
Mining rights, and a resource consent allowing the 42 hectares to be mined still exist.
"Until the 42-hectares containing 80 percent of Foulden Maar is in public ownership, it remains vulnerable to destruction. We fully intend to ensure it is protected and are exploring a range of avenues to facilitate its protection in perpetuity for paleontological research and to further our understanding of climate change."
With public sentiment firmly on the side of fossils, any commercial venture is bound to meet protest.
What are the options?
Frustratingly for scientists and those opposed to mining there’s been a lack of legal options available to protect the maar.
The Dunedin City Council could class the 42 hectares and the surrounding 432 hectares Plaman Resources wanted to buy as an Outstanding Natural Feature.
This would be likely to protect the larger block of land from mining. However, an existing consent trumps a later land status change, so until the current consent which allows mining on the 42 hectare block expires in 2044 this change doesn’t help. It has been suggested as this consent was granted in 2000 there’s little hope a judicial review could overturn it.
An easier path could lie in mounting opposition to any additional consents needed for to commercialise the mine. Diatomite mining is a dusty business. A current discharge to air consent from the Otago Regional Council expires in July 2020. With public interest high, and the dust from mining operations likely to make grazing on the surrounding farm problematic, it's unlikely any attempt to extend this consent would be non-notified.
There’s also an option of public ownership. The land could be purchased by the Government and turned into a scientific reserve. The land value is around $650,000.
Another option has been discussed relating to the legality of selling fossils overseas.
Plaman Resources had planned to grind up the fossils and sell the product as a food additive for stock.
The Protected Objects Act bars identified whole fossils from export, but once fossils are ground up, the Act would not stop the export.
The Act also has no power to prevent fossils being crushed and can only assess objects in the form they are exported.
Dunedin City Council, which has chosen to explore avenues to protect the site, is expected to discuss an options paper due this month according to Councillor Aaron Hawkins.