Week in Review
Aussie billionaire’s mineral permits on DoC land
While the no new mines on conservation land promise has languished, one of Australia's most litigious mining magnates has secured permits covering conservation land
Updated: An eccentric Australian billionaire well known for litigation has mining permits in New Zealand that include areas of public conservation land.
In total, Clive Palmer’s company, Mineralogy International, has permits which cover 267,642 hectares of New Zealand, including areas of conservation land approved or under evaluation. The permits are for mineral exploration and prospecting for gold, lithium or rare minerals and include Northland, Waikato and the West Coast.
Palmer's past is peppered with legal action. His latest stoush is with the West Australian government over the blocking of a business deal, but he's previously targeted the organisation managing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Under Palmer's ownership, a refinery owned by Palmer, Queensland Nickel, illegally discharged waste water into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. When told it was not allowed to do this again, officials say the company threatened to sue the marine park authority almost $7 billion for attempting to exert authority over its operations.
On November 8, 2017, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared - in the Speech from the Throne prepared for the Governor-General - that there would be no new mines on conservation land. This promise has languished within the coalition Government.
Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage has previously told Newsroom: “There are three parties in Government and we’ve yet to reach agreement on the release of a discussion document. One of the issues is how stewardship land, which is public conservation land, is treated.”
While agreement hasn’t been reached, mining applications have been processed as normal.
An Official Information Act request made by Forest & Bird to the Department of Conservation (DoC) shows between the speech and July 2020, seven applications for prospecting have been approved, 15 for exploration and 36 for mining. The 36 mining approvals were split between 21 approved applications to vary access arrangements for existing mines, and 15 approvals for new mines.
Two applications are from Mineralogy. At present, the company has applied to DoC to access two areas where hand-held tools will be used for sampling. One application has been approved, the other is pending approval.
Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said there should be absolutely no mining on conservation land, pointing out it was conservation land because it had conservation values.
"Mining of that land in pretty much nearly every case, results in total and permanent destruction of those values."
A Landcare Research guide for Westland on the rehabilitation of native forest or shrub land ecosystems to a similar state to what they were before mining said it could take decades or centuries.
Many sites where minerals are close enough to the surface to make mining commercially viable are also unique ecosystems, home to some of New Zealand's 4000 threatened species, said Hague.
"Since the beginning of this parliamentary term when the Speech from the Throne announced that new mining would be stopped on public conservation land, there's been a whole lot of new mines started. DoC's really not able to to ensure that even the mines we have now are confined to their resource consent conditions and the conditions of their access agreements. So there are widespread failures in our existing mines."
Hague said mining companies were businesses, with the goals of maximising profit; ensuring there were resources in place to ensure all the rules are being met could be a stretch, especially when mines were in remote locations.
"The company does the things that it's required to do at the beginning. But then the monitoring tapers off and so compliance tapers off."
He doesn't think Palmer's Mineralogy represents much more of a concern than other operations currently mining. Perversely, he wonders if Palmer's presence and reputation may put a greater spotlight on monitoring and compliance.
Who is Clive Palmer?
Palmer is a household name in Australia. He’s been an MP, a resort owner and a mining magnate. He’s also fond of litigation, once listing it as a pastime in his Who’s Who biography. It's been said his strategy is to prolong legal proceedings in order to drain his opponents' resources.
He’s been trying to sue the Western Australian (WA) government for approximately $30 billion - roughly $12,000 per person who lives there. He alleges his company suffered a financial loss because it was barred from selling an iron ore project to a Chinese company in 2012 thanks to decisions made by the state.
WA Premier Mark McGowan has said this would bankrupt the state and “mean mass closures of hospitals, of schools, of police stations, mass sackings of public servants and child protection workers”.
In August, the WA government attempted to squash the legal challenge in an extraordinary way by passing legislation in two days. The 'Mineralogy Act' terminates Palmer’s right to any ongoing arbitration in the matter.
"The McGowan government accepts this bill is unprecedented ... but Mineralogy and Mr Palmer are not normal," said WA Attorney-General John Quigley.
It’s likely Palmer will challenge the legality of the Act in court.
“The Act assumes full judicial power and directs and imposes sanctions against a single citizen that it names, and imposes penalties against that person based on what other people may do. No charge. No trial. No right of defence. No justice,” said Palmer.
Palmer is challenging the legality of the state's border closure during the Covid -19 crisis and has started defamation proceedings against the WA Premier. McGowan has described the state’s relationship with Palmer as “at war”.
Western Australian radio stations reported extensively on the story. They also accepted radio advertising from Palmer, who has his own political party - the United Australia Party - with a slogan of ‘Make Australia Great’. This led to listener backlash.
“Facebook pages of radio stations in Perth are blowing up with listeners showing their disgust for the Clive Palmer ads running almost non-stop across Perth,” reported a Perth media site.
Toxic waste discharged to Great Barrier Reef
These latest headlines are far from the only headlines about Palmer.
Queensland Nickel refinery, owned by Palmer, illegally discharged toxic waste into the Great Barrier Reef park in 2009 and 2011. This was done during two cyclones to avoid issues with the tailings dam, and "emergency provisions" were cited by the company. In the 2011 discharge, 514 tonnes of nitrogen was pumped into the reef. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) officials did not accept this as a valid response. However, no prosecution action was taken.
In 2012 the company said it would discharge wastewater continuously for at least three months during the wet season. The marine park authority refused to permit this saying the discharge would be similar to treated sewage "from a city of seven million people” and would have 100 times the allowed maximum nitrogen levels.
Government emails show Queensland Nickel found the stance of the park authority to be "obstructionist" and said the refinery "threatened a compensation claim of $6.4b should the GBRMPA intend to exert authority over the company's operations".
There were no further discharges and the compensation claim did not eventuate. A monitoring buoy now sits by the discharge pipe. World Wildlife Fund, which raised concerns in 2013 the tailings dam might collapse, creating an environmental disaster, was sued by Palmer. In a settlement it apologised and paid Palmers legal fees.
Queensland Nickel went bust in 2016 after nickel prices fell, putting hundreds out of work. Palmer settled a $200 million lawsuit in 2019, agreeing to repay $66m in taxpayer funds for entitlements for sacked workers. Legal action relating to the collapse is ongoing, with claims made in court Queensland Nickel traded while insolvent.
He’s left a string of failed endeavours in his wake. A resort modelled on Jurassic Park but with animatronic dinosaurs, named Palmersaurus went bust leaving hundreds out of jobs. He placed his dinosaurs, including Jeff the T. rex, along a boundary of the resort shared with a golf course during the 2012 Australian PGA Championships. With the ninth hole looking more like mini-golf than a PGA venue, the tournament was shifted the following year.
He purchased a football team but limited crowds at home games to 5000 to avoid paying transport subsidy. Eventually his licence was revoked. In retaliation he started up his own league. It appears to have failed.
His bid to build a ship - Titanic ll - a replica of the original Titanic, is thought to be ongoing, but behind its original schedule. With capacity for 2435 passengers the ship would be part of Palmer's cruise ship company, Blue Star Line.
What New Zealand conservation land does Mineralogy International have access to?
The company has eight permits for prospecting or exploration across areas of New Zealand, which were granted by New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals. Many of these include areas of conservation land. To access this land it has to apply for additional approval from DoC.
Currently, Mineralogy International has gained DoC permission to prospect in one area covering 18250 hectares on the West Coast of the South Island using hand held methods.
An application for another area Horohoro Mountain, close to Rotorua, is pending approval. Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Kearoa Ngāti Tuara have received a request from DoC for the company to prospect for minerals on conservation land in their mana whenua area.
Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Kearoa Ngāti Tuara chair, Eru George, said the Rūnanga had asked New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals to exclude their areas from the permit.
“They ignored our concerns and failed to uphold their Treaty obligations in the process. Now DoC is doing the same.”
The Rūnanga has invested in predator-free projects in the area to bring back native bush and birds.
Forest & Bird’s former regional manager Rebecca Stirnemann said the area is home to kākā, karearea New Zealand falcon, and pekapeka long-tailed bats, with kōkako living nearby.
“The company won’t tell the Rūnanga what it is looking for. We believe it is gold, and that means hard-rock mining and chemicals will be needed to extract it. This we know is very damaging to the environment.”
Mineralogy International's New Zealand operations manager Vishal Chavan said the company was looking for lithium at the site.
The company has six other permits for prospecting or exploration across areas of New Zealand. Chavan said the company would be applying for minimum impact activity consents elsewhere.
Minimum impact activity consents are used for sampling and prospecting with hand-hold methods only. When more than hand-held methods are used, the applicant has to submit an assessment of environmental effects, and bonds and insurance need to be in place.
Mining permissions on DoC land fall under the Crown Minerals Act, but recently concern has been raised around DoC's management of concessions. Federated Mountain Clubs, which issued a plea to DoC to fix the system calling for "nationally-consistent handling of concessions, better staff training, stronger lines of responsibility, and more concise, easy-to-use – and regularly updated – processing guidelines".
One suggested update in the club's report is a test for applicant suitability, similar to what the Overseas Investment Office conducts. Another suggestion is for fees to be set that better cover the cost of monitoring of activities being undertaken by commercial interests on public conservation land.
Newsroom has reported on issues with mining activity in the past. One mine in Mikonui on the South Island's West Coast, described as being left as a "moonscape" by a conservationist, was signed off as rehabilitated by DoC.
Documents released under the Official Information Act show DoC set the rehabilitation bond too low, by potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the mining company suggested reduced rehabilitation terms DoC decided the reduced terms were better than what could be achieved with the bond it had requested. A breach of conditions where the company exceeded the allowed area of activity was never punished.
Forest & Bird's Hague want two things to happen. He wants the promise of no new mines on conservation land to be honoured.
Secondly he wants "some teeth and some stick given to the agencies charged with looking after the conservation values" of areas where mining has been given permission to ensure promised remediation happens.
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