Anti-mining demonstrators who blocked State Highway 1 in Northland for two hours on Thursday say they will be back - unless the Government responds to their concerns about hard rock mining.
Members of Maori hapu Ngati Hau led the protest with dairy farmers and lifestyle block owners on the Hikurangi plains who are concerned about the exploration for gold and silver in the Puhipuhi Hills by Australian company De Grey Mining.
The demonstration south of Towai and just north of the railway crossing at Waiotu began at 10am. A Radio New Zealand reporter at the scene said up to 50 protesters lined the highway, forcing steams of traffic including logging trucks to take a 28km detour on narrow winding back roads. The road reopened about 12.25pm.
Police said they were powerless to remove protesters because the highway at that point traverses land that was never surveyed or sold to the Crown, which makes it Maori customary land.
Ngati Hau spokesperson Allan Halliday said on Thursday the hapu regrets the inconvenience to motorists and police who monitored the blockade. However, he said the group had no choice but to take direct action.
Mr Halliday said the hapu's concern about mineral exploration in the Puhipuhi Hills is shared by many landowners including dairy farmers downstream. He said the Government has refused to listen to those concerns - even though mercury-rich soils in the hills have caused pollution and sickness among Maori in past mining ventures.
Mr Halliday said if the Government does not respond within two weeks, Ngati Hau and their supporters will again blockade State Highway 1 for longer at the point north of Whangarei where it crosses Maori land.
"There's currently toxic contaminants leaking into the waterways and our fear is that once they start drilling there's going to be more of the toxins leaking into the waterways. Nobody can tell us that it can't - the potential damage may well be irreversible," he said.
The Puhipuhi Mining Action group, which includes local farmers, supported the blockade. Action group president Jenny Kirk said the community opposes gold and silver prospecting in the area because of the risk of mercury pollution.
Dairy farmer Ben Smith was among those handing out anti-mining flyers on Thursday and said the regional council had not given the community enough information about the level of heavy metals in waterways before and during exploration.
Mining company says no risk
De Grey Mining said on Thursday there is no way its activities will cause mercury pollution. Executive director Peter Batten said the company will be drilling holes and collecting samples in the Puhipuhi Hills and the process is no different from what a farmer would do to sink a bore.
Mr Batten said the protesters are misinformed about the risk of mercury pollution. He said the area has naturally high mercury levels and if it was a risk to drill, it would be a risk to farm there.
He said De Grey expects to do test drilling some time in the next six months.