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Conditional approval for Pike River Coal mine

Conditional approval for Pike River Coal mine proposal

Conservation Minister Chris Carter has approved in principle an application for an access arrangement from the Pike River Coal Company to mine the coal deposits in the Pike River catchment on the West Coast.

But the approval is subject to the company and the Department of Conservation (DOC) reaching a satisfactory agreement on the terms and conditions of the company's access arrangement to the area, including financial assurances and bonds.

"I want to emphasise that this approval is conditional on my being satisfied that the terms of the access agreement achieve the highest possible environmental safeguards so that the conservation values of the area are protected as fully as possible," Mr Carter said today.

The Pike River Coal company is proposing an underground mine that will extract between 600,000 and a million tons of coal annually for an estimated twenty years. The mine will require an access road over 3.6 km of public conservation land and the mine itself is located under conservation land on the eastern slopes of the Paparoa range in the Grey Valley north east of Greymouth.

"This mine does represent an intrusion into an area of high conservation values and a decision on whether to allow it to go ahead has been a very difficult one to make because of this," Mr Carter said.

"I have considered the fact that the mine is mostly underground and its visual footprint above ground is small (10 hectares) compared with the large area of protected landscape surrounding it (88,000 hectares). Most of the public conservation land that will be affected is stewardship land. There are only small impacts on the neighbouring ecological area and the Paparoa National Park, which carry a much higher legal status.

"Taking into account the criteria laid down in the Crown Minerals Act, I have concluded that the partial safeguards and compensation deal offered by the company are sufficient to outweigh the inconsistencies between the application and objectives of the Conservation Act under which these lands are held, the various purposes for which these lands are held and the relevant management plans that apply."

Mr Carter noted that there were four major issues relevant to the mining proposal.

1) Potential subsidence that could adversely affect surface ecological values

Subsidence will occur if the roof above the coal seam being mined collapses. In the Pike proposal up to 3m of surface subsidence and associated cracking is expected over a 200-300ha area. The expert advice sought on the Pike proposal is that the medium to long term effects of such subsidence are likely to be minimal because of the low stature and shallow rooting of the trees and shrubs affected. A 10 hectare stand of mountain beech trees which could be more severely affected is to be protected.

"DOC has advised me that I can have reasonable confidence that the foreseeable adverse effects of subsidence will be manageable and can be partially safeguarded, so long as comprehensive conditions are placed in the access arrangement and these conditions are strictly adhered to by the mining company," Mr Carter said.

2) Acid mine drainage from mined coal seams

Acid mine drainage results from pyritic materials (iron disulphide minerals) being exposed to air and water, oxidising and forming acids that can also release heavy metals in the materials. The discharge of acids and heavy metals can adversely impact on aquatic life when discharged into streams and waterways. "In late 2002, I asked for a further drilling programme to establish the nature and extent of likely acid mine drainage in the coal mining operations," Mr Carter said.

"Following those tests, a world expert has provided technical advice stating that the risk of acid mine drainage is 'manageable and probably low'. I am now satisfied that the acid mine drainage problem is manageable provided all the management practices proposed by DOC are fully met, both during the course of the mine's operations and for a long period of time afterwards."

3) The impacts of the proposed access route on both natural and recreational values

The Pike River area has high botanical values and has been identified as habitat for a number of threatened bird species, such as whio (blue duck). The catchment itself also has superior water quality and is home to a number of important indigenous fish species. There are concerns that the access route and mining activities will impact on these values and species.

"The access road for the mine will stretch for about 3.6km across public conservation land but for about 2.6km it will follow an existing partially formed road left over from the days when the area was logged," Mr Carter said.

"The advice to me has been that there will be only a very localised impact on the botanical values of the area that will not materially affect conservation values. The impact on native species will also be confined to a small area in a large habitat, and will I believe be offset by the company's spending on pest control. I am informed that there are only two individual whio still alive in the Pike River catchment, both of which are male. Obviously, this is not a viable breeding population.

"Once again, I will be ensuring that the best possible safeguards are in place to protect against significant damage to conservation values in the company's access arrangement. Because these effects can only be partially safeguarded, I have also sought compensation from the company," Mr Carter said.

The company is to provide for an annual sum of $70,000 to be spent on projects with appropriate conservation objectives, such as whio preservation, with total spending over the life of the mine being $1.4 million. The company is also proposing to rehabilitate an equivalent area of conservation land should its operations materially affect conservation values.

The Pike River area provides a remote experience for recreationalists within the conservation estate, which has also been taken into account in the access decision.

"I am advised that very few people actually use this area. Users of the Paparoa Traverse, a more popular neighbouring recreation destination, will be largely unaffected visually by the proposal," Mr Carter said.

4) The impact on Paparoa National Park

The Pike proposal does not include large scale mining under Paparoa National Park but it does involve the drilling of four 1.5m holes within the park boundaries to act as emergency escape passages for miners. Some subsidence is also expected along the edge of park boundary.

"The advice to me is that the impacts on the National Park are likely to be minimal. Only 150mm of subsidence is expected along the park boundary, a figure an independent expert has advised I can have reasonable confidence in," Mr Carter said.

"The National Parks Act is subject to the Crown Minerals Act, which allows surface disturbance from mining operations of no more than 100 square metres within national parks, and the four exit holes in the Pike proposal fall within that area."

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