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Snail Extinction Could See Top Miners in Jail

MEDIA RELEASE
For immediate use
From: Save Happy Valley Coalition
13th December 2005


Snail Extinction Could See Top Miners in Jail

The Save Happy Valley Coalition has put the board of Solid Energy New Zealand on notice that the group will consider them personally liable for the extinction of a rare carnivorous land snail.

“If Solid Energy harms these snails then, according to our reading of the law, that’s a criminal act,” says Save Happy Valley spokesperson Frances Mountier.

“We’ve had it up to here with ‘accidental’ environmental catastrophes with no accountability. If Powelliphanta augustus is pushed irrevocably towards extinction, then somebody should be going to jail.”

The coalition, an environmental group concerned with the damage Solid Energy causes on the West Coast, have written to the board of Solid Energy, the environmental manager, the CEO, and the shareholding ministers. A full list of these people, and a copy of the letter sent, is included below.

Powelliphanta augustus live within the Stockton Mining Licence, near Westport. All Powelliphanta species are absolutely protected under the Wildlife Act 1953. Solid Energy has already destroyed most of the snail habitat, including some after the company knew the snails were there, and plans to move some habitat with heavy machinery before blasting the rest.

In a High Court hearing starting today, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society is seeking to clarify the legal status of protected wildlife on mining land.

ENDS


LETTER WAS SENT TO:

Timothy Saunders, member of Solid Energy’s Board of Directors
Michael Hawarden, member of Solid Energy’s Board of Directors
John Walters, member of Solid Energy’s Board of Directors
Tony Williams, member of Solid Energy’s Board of Directors
Adrienne Young Cooper, member of Solid Energy’s Board of Directors
Helen Cull, member of Solid Energy’s Board of Directors
John Spencer, member of Solid Energy’s Board of Directors
Don Elder, CEO of Solid Energy
Mark Pizey, Environmental Manager of Solid Energy
Michael Cullen, Shareholding Minister
Trevor Mallard, Shareholding Minister


LETTER:

Dear Members of the Board of Solid Energy, Directors, Environmental Manager and Shareholding Ministers,

We are writing to you to raise our serious concerns about the impending extinction of Powelliphanta augustus, at the hands of Solid Energy. Our discussions with the Department of Conservation have led us to the conclusion that Solid Energy’s proposed mining activity on the Mt Augustus ridgeline will cause the extinction of Powelliphanta augustus.

As you are no doubt aware, Powelliphanta augustus is absolutely protected under the Wildlife Act 1953. We have considered this matter, and our view is that mining of the ridgeline in a manner which causes the extinction of Powelliphanta augustus would be an offence against the Wildlife Act. We have read the Forest and Bird court papers and it is our view that the translocation, habitat transfer, and mining all require the consent of the Ministers of Conservation and Energy.

We are also aware that section 65a of the Wildlife Act makes managers and directors of companies personally liable for offences committed by companies which they manage or direct. It is our understanding that a shareholding minister would be considered a manager or director and as such, would be considered personally liable for any such offence.

Thus, if Solid Energy proceeds with mining the Mt Augustus ridgeline in breach of the provisions of the Wildlife Act, then such mining is done with the permission of the managers and directors and they have taken no reasonable steps to stop the commission of this offence.

The Save Happy Valley Coalition is committed to saving this species from extinction and will undertake whatever means it deems necessary to ensure that this does not occur. This includes taking private prosecutions against the managers and directors who are responsible for the offence and consequential state-sponsored extinction.

We trust that you will take your responsibility under law seriously and will not commit any such offence.

Yours sincerely,
Save Happy Valley Coalition
www.savehappyvalley.org.nz

NOTES ON POWELLIPHANTA "AUGUSTUS":

The snails live on a small area on the northern ridge of Mt Augustus, on the border of Stockton Mining Licence and conservation land. The area was recommended for protection in the 1998 Ngakawau Protected Natural Area report, before the new snail species was identified.

Powelliphanta "Augustus" was discovered by the Nelson Botanical Society in 1996, but was not examined and shown to be a separate species until 2003. By this time, the area where the snails were first found had been mined. In early 2005, another substantial area of remaining snail habitat was destroyed by mining activity. It is estimated that there are 800-1000 snails left, though Department of Conservation scientists state that the population is likely to be smaller then this.

There are many reasons why Solid Energy’s actions will result in the first known state-sponsored species extinction, including:

- Although the snails are critically endangered, and absolutely protected under the Wildlife Act 1953, it is not clear whether they have any legal status on mining licence land (see Forest and Bird information on High Court hearing this week). So if the Department of Conservation refuses a permit to move some snails by hand, Solid Energy intends to mine the area anyway.

- Solid Energy believes it can legally kill snails under the Coal Mines Act 1979. However it has applied for a permit from DOC to move up to 100 snails by hand to another location. It then plans to dig up and transfer snail habitat with heavy machinery, before mining the area.

- If 100 snails are not found during the 10-day survey (and they are very hard to find), the mining will proceed anyway.

- The habitat will be mined as soon as the transfer and translocation are done, so there is no back-up population, or time to see if the population survives the interference.

- No such translocation has been attempted before, it is not at all certain snails would successfully re-establish. Due to the slow growth of the snails (some species of Powelliphanta are estimated to live for up to 20 years), it would take many years of monitoring to establish that the translocation had been successful.

- Any translocation should occur in several batches over several seasons. All other Powelliphanta translocations have left the source population intact.

- The proposed site, although only 800m from the source population, has different altitude, aspect, exposure, soil chemistry and diversity of vegetation sites. It is likely that if the area was suitable habitat, the snails would have moved here already.

- The site the snails would be moved too is not protected either physically or legally.

- “Direct transfer” with heavy machinery will result in some snails being crushed and killed.

- Captivity has also been mentioned as option. However, no Powelliphanta snails have ever survived in captivity as viable reproducing populations. Due to Powelliphanta "Augustus' habitat preferences, its survival in captivity would be even more difficult to achieve.

- A Department of Conservation report on management options for the snails states “not mining the site is the only option which ensures Powelliphanta "Augustus" does not become extinct.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION ON POWELLIPHANTA SNAILS:

- The giant Powelliphanta land snails of North Westland and North- West Nelson are internationally significant. They are of very ancient lineage and originated in the late Paleozoic or early Mesozoic on Gondwanaland, along with the ancestors of native frog and tuatara (Stevens et al 1995).

- Like the moa and weta, Powelliphanta land snails developed gigantism, and large flightless invertebrates took the ecological niche small mammals occupy elsewhere in the world.

- There are about 24 species of Powelliphanta. Most are naturally confined to small areas, probably through a combination of a long and complicated biogeographical history, the snails’ restricted mobility, and habitat specific adaptation.

- Powelliphanta snails vary greatly between species, most have very glossy shells, delicately marked with numerous bands, in many shades of red, brown, yellow and black. Some species are large, like the fist-sized, golden shelled Powelliphanta superba prouseorum, which weighs as much as a tui.

- Like other pre-historic species such as kiwi and tuatara, Powelliphanta are slow-growing, long-lived (averaging about 12-15 years), and have low productivity. They do not reach breeding age until their 5th or 6th year, and lay only 4-10 hard limy eggs annually, with the survival of hatchlings likely to be low. They have few defences against predators. The alpine Powelliphanta have fared better than lowland species as most of the new snail predators are scarce above the bushline. Their small, patchy and localized distribution make Powelliphanta very vulnerable to habitat loss. Many Powelliphanta are now highly threatened species.

Much of this background information has been sourced from the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society.

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