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Decision On Macraes' Mine Common Sense

Decision On Macraes' Mine Environmental Common Sense

SATURDAY 18 AUGUST, 2001-Wellington

Conservation Minister, Sandra Lee's decision to decline consent to GRD Macraes' mining access application is environmental common sense, Forest and Bird says.

GRD Macraes Ltd sought access to 550 ha of Victoria Conservation Park near Reefton for its proposed hard rock gold mine.

"The Minister's decision is the only sensible one, both environmentally and financially. It reduces the ongoing environmental risks and financial costs to the Crown and West Coast ratepayers of managing New Zealand's largest toxic waste site in perpetuity," Forest and Bird field officer, Eugenie Sage said.

"Siting 13 million tonnes of tailings, contaminated with a toxic cocktail or arsenic, cyanide and heavy metals, in steep country with a high rainfall and with 12 earthquake faults within 50 km would be asking for trouble," she said.

"Hard rock gold mining is "dirty development" which the West Coast is moving beyond with its current tourism growth.

"Tailings dumps have a poor safety record with four major failures in tailings dams in 2000 alone in the United States, Sweden and Romania. The mine's main tailings dam (Devils Creek) would have been New Zealand's second largest earth/rock dam after Benmore and higher than the Clyde Dam. It would have been double the size of Coromandel's Golden Cross/Waitekauri mine.

"The Minister's decision recognises the mine's devastating environmental impacts. It would have obliterated forest and wildlife habitat over at least 290 ha of the park and exposed a nationally outstanding river system (the Buller) to major pollution problems from acid mine drainage, and seepage or subsidence in the tailings dumps."

"In the middle of an energy crisis it makes no sense to increase the power demand on the West Coast by more than a third," Ms Sage said. "Hard rock mining is energy intensive and the mine would have required an around the clock supply of 12 MW. Current West Coast power demand is 36 MW with local dams producing 16 MW.

"The Minister also needs to cancel the access arrangement agreed to in principle by former Conservation Minister, Denis Marshall in 1993 for a mine half the size of the company's current proposal."

"The smaller 1993 proposal is still sizeable. It involves a 35 ha pit, 50 ha waste rock stack and 22 ha tailings dump. Such a mine would have severe impacts on waterways, including the Inangahua and Buller Rivers because of the acid mine drainage and other pollution problems commonly associated with hard rock gold mining," Ms Sage said.

"The company has sought major changes to the access agreement since 1993 to increase the mine's size and impacts. Forest and Bird believes the extent of the changes and the company's inability to restore the site mean the original access agreement is invalid.

Ends Notes to media

1. More than 60 % of the site is pristine beech and beech/rimu forest and has not been previously mined, contrary to statements by Buller Mayor, Pat O'Dea.

2. The results of a two year West Coast tourism study by Lincoln University's Tourism Department released this week shows that the West Coast has the fastest growing tourism industry in New Zealand. The study also shows that tourism growth is directly correlated with quality of the natural environment, for example the township of Ross, which has a large gold mine adjacent to the town, has the slowest economic growth.

3. Any loss of short term (7-10 year) mine jobs needs to be offset against the significant economic growth occurring on the West Coast, led by tourism and dairying. In June 2001 the National Bank's economic activity survey showed that that West Coast, at 3.9%, was second only to Otago in year on year growth in New Zealand. For the March 2001 quarter, the West Coast led New Zealand in retail sales and employment growth.

Why GRD Macraes Ltd's proposed Reefton gold mine should be declined

Briefing paper from the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society

August 2001

1. Introduction

Australian mining company, GRD Macraes Ltd ("GRD Macraes" or "the company") is seeking access to 550 ha of conservation land to establish a major hard rock gold mine on the West Coast. The site for the proposed Globe Progress mine is located within the Victoria Conservation Park, close to Reefton.

GRD Macraes wants to double the size of the mine agreed to in principle in 1993 by former Conservation Minister, Denis Marshall when he granted access under the Crown Minerals Act. That agreement should be cancelled because major variations to it since 1993 make it invalid in Forest and Bird's opinion.

2. Future generations burdened with New Zealand's largest toxic waste dump

West Coast councils granted GRD Macraes all the resource consents it requires under the Resource Management Act in January 2001. The councils' rapid processing of the consent applications meant that the mine's environmental impacts were not properly considered. Councils ignored independent technical advice that the company's information on water quality and the site's geological stability was inadequate.

Hard rock mining in the steep, high rainfall and earthquake prone hill country behind Reefton is a very different proposition from mining in the dry and gentle landscapes of central Otago, which GRD Macraes is used to. The proposed Globe Progress mine may be profitable for the company for the 7-15 year life of the mine, but it would create New Zealand's largest toxic waste site and permanently burden the Crown and the public with the costs of "managing" this liability.

The proposed mine is contrary to several goals in Government's December 2000 report, "Towards a Waste Minimisation Strategy". These include "protecting the environment and human health from the harmful effects of waste" and "a society committed to waste minimisation."

3. Important indigenous habitat destroyed

The mine proposal would destroy more than 290 ha of beech and beech rimu forest (60 percent of it relatively pristine) to create a deep 46 ha pit, two tailings dumps (76 ha), two waste rock dumps (105 ha), haul roads and other mine areas. It encroaches into the North Western Wildlife Corridor, an important forested link between the eastern Paparoa Range and the forests of the Southern Alps.

The Department of Conservation has estimated that the forest clearance alone could cause the loss of between 100 and 1040 South Island robin and 80 to 200 weka, and reduce habitat for threatened kaka, kakariki (parakeets), Helm stag beetle, mistletoe and possibly the long tailed bat.

What is now a peaceful, substantially forested landscape would become a large, noisy and dangerous industrial area. The natural character and topography of this part of the park would be permanently changed. The Devils Creek valley would become a hill of waste rock as high as the main observation deck of Auckland's Sky Tower, and forested hill slopes would be excavated to become a large steep sided pit, into which one could drop the whole Reefton township. Mining will destroy riparian vegetation on Devil's Creek, Union Creek and their tributaries. Increased sedimentation of waterways is likely without this buffering vegetation with impacts on indigenous fish and brown trout habitat, and the recreational fishery of the Inangahua River. Substantial erosion is already occurring from roading and tracking on the mine site, which GRD Macraes has bulldozed for prospecting. Edge effects around cleared and modified areas (such as more light, greater drying, greater risk of tree wind-throw, insect attack, and weed invasion) will further increase the extent of fragmented and disturbed habitat. Blasting and other mine noise will disturb wildlife and destroy the current peace and quiet of the area. 4. Contrary to Conservation Act 1987 By law (sections 2, 6, 19, 23A and 23B of the Conservation Act) Government is obliged to preserve and protect the natural resources of Victoria Conservation Park and, subject to their protection, encourage public recreation and enjoyment of the area. The mine and its associated habitat destruction and pollution would do none of these things.

5. Permanent financial liability for the Crown

The mine would expose the Crown to substantial financial and environmental risks for generations to come, particularly in managing the pollution risk from the mine pit, two tailings dams and waste rock dumps. The proposed $8-$20 million bond and insurance is likely to be inadequate to cover ongoing management costs or remedy reasonably foreseeable adverse effects. The mine is expected to last 7-15 years. The company is responsible for the site for only 10 years after mining ends. After that (or before if the company suffers financial problems), local authorities and the Crown will be responsible for rehabilitation and maintenance of the pit, collection and treatment of contaminated water including acid mine drainage, waste rock stack security, stability of the tailings dumps and other mine workings.

6. Major pollution risk for waterways and groundwater

Water discharges (both during the operation of the mine and after it closes) will create an ongoing and heavy pollution load in local streams and the Inangahua River and may contaminate groundwater. Discharges from the mine processing plant would include elevated levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, copper, cadmium, lead, and zinc. Pollution is also likely from acid mine drainage, seepage from the tailings dumps. This risks heavy metals, arsenic and cyanide seeping into groundwater and surface waters.

6.1 Tailings dumps have poor safety record Hard rock mining causes much more pollution and is very different from traditional West Coast alluvial gold mining. Hard rock mining involves crushing rock (ore), then mixing it with water and chemicals to form slurry. This is processed to produce a sulphide concentrate from which gold is extracted using a pressure oxidation system and a cyanidation process. The tailings slurry is a toxic cocktail of heavy metals such as copper, antimony, arsenic and cadmium. The two tailings dumps would contain more than 13 million tonnes of tailings. Tailings dumps have a poor safety record. There is a high risk of instability and subsidence on or under the tailings dumps and the waste rock dumps, particularly given the seismic potential and the heavy rainfall in the area. An independent audit of GRD Macraes' resource consent application found that there has been no comprehensive investigation of land stability on the Globe Progress site, despite the implications of the site's stability for the Crown's post-mine liability. Overtopping of the tailings dams because of prolonged rain, fractures in or seepage from the two tailings dumps would severely pollute groundwater, local streams and the Inangahua and Buller Rivers. Management of these rivers is subject to a Water Conservation Order under the Resource Management Act.

6.2 Acid mine drainage

Acid mine drainage from 105 ha of waste rock stacks, the exposed walls of the open pit and the tailings dumps is likely to be a major water pollution problem. Hard rock mining creates large volumes of waste rock. When this is exposed to rain and weather, the sulphide bearing minerals in the rock oxidise releasing sulphuric acid which in turn dissolves metals (e.g. copper, zinc, cadmium) in the surrounding rock. This acidic run off contaminated with heavy metals can persist at mine sites for centuries. Acid mine drainage can be 10-20 times more acidic than battery acid.

Natural processes such as root penetration and ground creep means that outer seal layers on the waste rock stacks will become ineffective and water penetration is inevitable. Contaminated leachate will pollute streams and groundwater. An independent report by URS Woodward Clyde Dames and Moore for the Department of Conservation suggests the company has substantially under-estimated the amount of arsenic producing rock by re defining what constitutes "high" and "low" arsenic rock. At least 10 % (or 11 million tonnes) of the waste rock is estimated to have high arsenic levels. The same report notes major gaps in the level of technical information provided by the company for example: "the level detail and design is not comparable to that presented as part of the permitting process for other mine sites throughout New Zealand." and "It is not feasible to assess the proposed tailings management as no geochemical data is provided.... Consequently the level of risk posed by the current disposal strategy cannot be assessed."

7. Energy crisis exacerbated

The mine would increase the power demand on the West Coast by more than a third, causing more environmental damage. Hard rock mining is energy intensive and the mine would require an around the clock supply of 12 MW. Current West Coast power demand is 36 MW with local dams producing 16 MW.

Trustpower says its proposed Dobson hydro development is needed to supply Macraes and the proposed Pike River coal mine. The $100 million Dobson scheme would be the biggest hydro development since the Clyde Dam. It involves diverting much of the flow of the Arnold River and flooding podocarp forest in the Card Creek Ecological Area near Greymouth.

8. Significant greenhouse gas emissions The mine would undermine commitments made under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An independent report for the Department of Conservation has estimated that potential methane and CO2 emissions (from rotting vegetation and lost soil carbon from vegetation clearance) are the equivalent of 930,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (in global warming potential) and almost 1 percent of New Zealand's annual emissions.

9. Public access to conservation land prevented Conservation land is public land that is normally open for free public access. GRD Macraes intends to prohibit public use of the mine road, closing the mine area to public access for up to 15 years except for official mine tours. This will significantly reduce recreational access to a sizeable area of conservation land and prevent public scrutiny of mine operations. The destruction of the historic Alborns Coal Mine Walk and other access tracks will further curtail public recreation.

10. Site restoration and rehabilitation impossible

The severity and extent of disturbance and habitat destruction means rehabilitation is unlikely and impossible within any human lifetime. The topography of the site will be permanently changed with ridges becoming a deep pit and two valleys filled up with waste rock. Planning for site rehabilitation is to occur during and after mining as a "tack-on" rather than as an integrated part of mine construction and operation.

The proposal to leave around 110 ha of contaminated waterbodies (the mine pit, tailings dumps, and silt ponds) is inappropriate when such water bodies do not exist on the site at present.

11. Conclusion Conservation land, including Victoria Conservation Park is held and managed by the Crown to protect its natural values on behalf of all New Zealanders. The 550 ha proposed mine site is an integral part of an area with significant landscape, wildlife habitat, recreation and intrinsic values. Allowing the mine would destroy many of these values, severely degrade others, cause ongoing water pollution well beyond the mine site, and leave an ongoing liability for future generations. It would also foreclose other options and prevent conservation land on the site being used to create sustainable long-term jobs in pest control, recreation management, wildlife research and nature tourism.

12 Sources:

In preparing this briefing paper, Forest and Bird has used information from several Department of Conservation and GRD Macraes' reports that were obtained under the Official Information Act. If you require further information please contact Barry Weeber or Kate Mitcalfe in Forest and Bird's Wellington office (phone 04 385 7374) or Eugenie Sage in our Christchurch office (phone 03 3666 317).

Barry Weeber
Senior Researcher
Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society
PO Box 631
New Zealand
Phone 64-4-385-7374
Fax 64-4-385-7373

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