22 Nov 2023

Striking gold hits obstacles

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 22 November 2023

The battle between extracting the materials we need from the ground and the land above it being torn apart is likely to accelerate as the new government looks to have a more relaxed stance over mining. 

The Wharekirauponga bush in the Coromandel where OceanaGold is planning an underground tunnel to mine gold.

The Wharekirauponga Forest Park, the site of a proposed mine. Photo: Supplied / Coromandel Watchdog

National's Christopher Luxon has signaled a change of direction when it comes to mining, promising it can be done in a "sensitive" way to balance economic and environmental interests. 

A stark contrast to Labour's (unkept) promise that there would be no new mining on conservation land. 

Either way, as long as mining companies get permission to uproot the landscape, advocacy groups will challenge them in court. 

The latest such challenge comes from anti-mining group Ours Not Mines, which is taking the Hauraki District Council to court over a permit the council has given OceanaGold.

The company, which has been mining for gold in Waihi among other places, wants to mine underneath Department of Conservation land, and has found a loophole to avoid a drawn-out permission process. 

The goldmine in Waihi is changing hands from Newmont to NZ company Oceanagold.

OceanaGold's Martha Mine at Waihi. Photo: 123RF

Newshub's climate correspondent Isobel Ewing has covered the case in Hamilton. 

"The gist of it is pretty simple. The Wharekirauponga Forest Park, which is tucked in the hills behind Whangamatā and Waihi Beach – there is a proposed mine underneath that area.

"OceanaGold is wrapping up its operations at Martha Mine which is at Waihi, and they are now eyeing up this big – what they estimate to be – $1.8 billion worth of gold under that forest park."

OceanaGold wants to build mining infrastructure, like air vents, on a "paper road" which exists on a map but doesn't exist physically. 

The hearings were held last week and the judgment is expected early next year.

But Ewing wouldn't be talking to The Detail about this case if the Labour government had followed through on its promise to stop new mining on conservation land. 

The Governor General promised it in 2017 through the speech from the throne, and then-backbench MP Jacinda Ardern had marched in Queen St in a big protest over it seven years earlier.

But as prime minister, Ardern always said the government's plans for reclassifying stewardship land were delaying the process.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was visibly upset as her addressed media following a serious shooting in Auckland CBD on 20 July, 2023 where thee people, including a gunman, were shot dead.

 During this year's election campaign, Ardern's successor Chris Hipkins said the government was still keen to fulfil the promise, but was still working through matters such as access to pounamu with South Island iwi Ngāi Tahu. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"Jacinda Ardern, I do believe she did mean for that promise to be kept," Ewing says.

"But it degrades the speech from the throne a little when you've got a promise that's being made and how many years on from 2017 and the promise hasn't been fulfilled."

She says the new government will have a challenge on its plate.

"Christopher Luxon's got a big balancing act between the mining industry, which is very keen, of course, to progress this gold mine in Waihi, and other mining interests on the West Coast; and trying to balance that with adequate protection of conservation land."

So what about this term "sensitive" – is there any way mining can be done sensitively with care for the environment?

David Bell, who has taught mining and engineering geology at the University of Canterbury for over 50 years, believes so.

"Mining is one of the fundamental requirements for society," he says.

"We have to provide raw materials, we have to have enough material to meet various demands and we have to do that in a sane and sensible way."

He talks to The Detail about mining sensitively.

"You're going to have your regulations for a start, and so you have to have careful administration of the mining regulations. You're not going in there ripping things out without having a long-term plan to rehabilitate the site afterwards."

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