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Environmental externalities from Mining in New Zealand (unverified notes)

With everything happening lately regarding opening up (or not) land listed in Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act [1] to mining, and with me being someone who likes getting outdoors, I’ve been keen to find some vaguely objective information about effects of mining on the surrounding environment. On July 21st I went to a public presentation by Professor Dave Craw [2], of the Geology Department at Otago University, and the director of the Environmental Science programme there. It’s part of a series of winter lectures [3] being hosted by Otago University in Auckland and Wellington. Given his background, Professor Craw seems to be in a good position to comment on the topic of mining in New Zealand with some scientific authority. He’s been cited in the news a few times on this topic (example 1 [4], example 2 [5]).

Later in this post, I’ve reproduced the notes I took during Professor Craw’s presentation. It’s not authoritative coming from me. As interested as I am in comprehending things on a level that transcends what’s most easily available through polarised press releases, I’m not a geologist and I’ve not been involved in New Zealand’s mining industry. My note-taking skills from a one hour public lecture are nothing compared with various other people’s years or decades of working with or researching this stuff, so please use these notes as an approximate guide only.

Professor Craw’s main interest is in understanding the science of what happens in the environment around mines, what the effects are, the best ways to mitigate those effects if we need to do so, and how effective these methods actually are. He studies historic and often unregulated mining (totally unregulated mining no longer exists in New Zealand), and the clean-up processes that have followed, to better understand possible effects and what can be done about them. His line is that it’s great to debate mining New Zealand’s land, but the debate’s much more useful if those taking part on all sides have a good understanding of what they’re debating and what’s at stake. Obviously however (and this is me speaking), there’s far more information that can be injected into debates than just the environmental impact information which is Professor Craw’s main focus. As with the talk I attended, the notes below don’t cover everything relevant.

Before getting into my notes from his presentation, I’ll prefix them with a few paragraphs of introduction about why this interests me. Please skip past it if that kind of thing bores you.

Several months ago I made a submission [6] on the government’s proposals to open Schedule 4 land to mining, along with tens of thousands of other people. My submission was thin on science. I figured I’d be better to leave that to people who could demonstrate they actually knew what they were talking about, and I commented mostly on what to me seemed like a lazily constructed discussion document that didn’t make its point very well, whatever that was, or appear to justify what it was proposing. This has been in the wake of some fierce campaigns [7] against the proposal by several environmental and recreation groups, including Federated Mountain Clubs [8] which I think represents my ideals most closely, though nobody will ever represent me exactly except for me.

Two days before the talk I attended, on 19th July 2010, the New Zealand government finally revealed [9] (and confirmed [10] the next day) that the removal of land from Schedule 4 would not take place. Since then a lot of groups have been metaphorically leaping up and down in a “we won” kind of fashion. I guess I’ve found it an anti-climax, because whether Schedule 4 land is involved or not, I’m not convinced much has changed. Following the submission process, the government is now declaring it has a mandate to increase mining activities in non Schedule 4 lands [11], and basically that it wants mining to increase overall. I suppose if you want something that may be controversial, one way to get it is to pretend you want something that’s just totally nutty and absurd, then slink away with what you really wanted once everyone’s distracted and happy that you’ve not gotten what you said you wanted. Whatever — it’s politics and marketing, which are two stereotypes I don’t gel with very well.

For some examples, I think:
IMG_6967 [12]
This [13] is not protected
under Schedule 4.


IMG_4314 [14]
Neither is this [15].


img_2453 [16]
Or this [17].

What gets to me in this is that the places I most frequently visit for recreation, nearly all the fantastic outdoor regions described in this blog [18], are very rarely covered by Schedule 4 anyway. They’re simply awesome back-country wilderness areas, not necessarily unique enough to be classified as Schedule 4, but very accessible and wonderful places to experience all the same, completely different from a daywalk through the local regional park. Even if it doesn’t affect me directly, I still wonder how this might affect people in other parts of New Zealand who benefit from the presence and accessibility of other non-Schedule-4 conservation land in ways similar to myself.

There’s a lot in the notes, but points from Professor Craw’s presentation that I found especially interesting were that:

The notes below are a reproduction of what I scribbled down in handwriting on the night. They’re not a perfect reproduction of his slides or what he said, and I’ve decorated the text with links to related resources as I’ve thought appropriate. These notes are prone to misunderstandings or lack of context on my part, and if I’ve recorded any of the talk incorrectly (as may be the case) then it’s my own responsibility. Please keep this in mind if you browse the notes, and comment below if you wish to correct anything. If I’ve interpreted anything radically wrong, I’ll update my post.

The notes

Background

Gold

South Island Gold

Reefton

North Island Gold

Coal

Predictions for the next 100 years

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Environmental externalities from Mining in New Zealand (unverified notes)"

#1 Comment By Richard Davies On 5 August, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

One of the arguments that Prof. Craw probably doesn’t engage in, is that when you are dealing with pristine land (genuinely pristine, not just “nice” land) you can never remedy or mitigate what you do when you cut down the trees and dig a hole. It doesn’t matter how much you spend, or how strict the regulatory oversight is, just like you can only be a virgin once, you can only be pristine once. One only has to travel through places with an extensive history of human settlement to realise that.

This is what drove a lot of FMCs opposition to the Schedule 4 proposal. From a recreational (and conservation) perspective what is unique about the NZ mountains is how little human impact there has been. Contrast that with what we did to the lowlands in <150 years!

Now, assuming the proposed changes to the Crown Minerals Act proceed, and the Energy Minister is approving access to DoC land, recreationalists will be faced with having to stick up for why the non-Schedule 4 places are special on a case by case basis. One would imagine Victoria Conservation Park will be an early test.

cheers

Richie

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 6 August, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

Hi Richie.

Thanks for the comment. I should make it clear if it wasn’t already that I very much appreciate all the work and effort that FMC’s executive and other people and organisations have put into campaigning against this.

The disillusionment I’ve expressed comes from a feeling that the original motives (of the government/mining industry) seem to have been hidden from the beginning by this attention-getting Schedule 4 decoy, making it very difficult for anyone to address issues about mining directly without wading through everything Schedule 4 related…. and then having to deal with a barrage of onlookers thinking everything’s over and done with just because the decoy went down in a flaming heap. It’s the worst of politics at work. Maybe one or two people near the top were duped into thinking Schedule 4 land was important, but if a recognised geologist with established experience in studying and working with New Zealand’s mining industry comes out and says that he’s confused anyone wants to mine Schedule 4 land because there’s not much of value there anyway, it encourages my feelings around this. It’s only one person and I’m sure there will be counter-claims if there’s ever a need, but at the very least it’s making the whole argument more messy.

As you’ve noted, he was only speaking about the side of things that his work covers, presumably for professional reasons, and was really just focused on trying to inject objective information into the debate for people (like me) who haven’t been too familiar with the details. I’m very glad I went along, and it’s the first time I’ve felt as if I’ve been able to get a relatively neutral message coming from someone making an effort to just state some objective information and answer questions. It didn’t change my point of view but I feel marginally more informed about some things, and I guess that’s what he was trying to do.

I do have concern for the way things are going over time with regard to public awareness of (and support for) pristine conservation areas, or maybe any conservation areas. With the slow migration of population to urban centres, I now have a few friends who’ve moved here, are well attached to urban life (it’s how they grew up overseas), and would probably never consider staying somewhere outside a city for anything beyond a novelty. It’s out of their comfort zone. They wouldn’t jump on a pro-mining or pro-hydro band-wagon or anything like that, they’re simply people who won’t get concerned one way or another because pristine untouched land isn’t very important to them. They’re people who simply don’t have opportunities or inclinations to get outdoors. Sometimes it’s even easier to pick up a cheap flights and travel around South-East-Asia for three weeks (which we did about a year ago on $700 return flights followed by a much lower cost of living) than it is to take a car to the South Island and drive around outdoor tourist attractions for the same amount of time… especially for people who’ve never done it before and don’t have any tricks for cutting costs, or any ability or skilled friends to get them outdoors independently doing something like tramping.

Cheers.
Mike.

#3 Comment By John K On 13 August, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

Thanks Mike for this most informative piece. Oops, I got a bit carried away in my reply. I hope you find it worth reading.

I found this blog while I was perusing websites with mention of my old home town Reefton. Well this looked more interesting than most, so I read on. Good stuff it is too. It’s hard to find this kind of information, especially from an expert source that is easy to understand and quantify. No apologies for the note-taking needed.

I agree that the mining issue will continue to follow a kind of electoral cycle. Though badly handled by the minister, I think the general thrust behind the government’s plan is to redefine the balance and open up more mining operations in traditional mining areas like the West Coast. Money, as ever, is driving environmental policy.

I really do appreciate the work of all the various lobby groups defending the wild places. Brownlee scored a home goal in suggesting mining in the greater Auckland region alone. 40,000 at a demo indicates a very large degree of opposition. It is clear this opposition cuts through the usual political landscape. So, as pragmatic (and spineless) as ever, they have pulled back because they know it is costing votes.

Under the current economic model, we will have this level of mining as long as want cheap air travel, consumer goods and the staggering mountain of junk we import each year. Until large numbers of New Zealanders, including myself, downsize and wean ourselves off this materialistic cargo-cult type culture: opposition to mining will focus on pollution mitigation and defending the status quo.

The most important element in the discussion is the flow of information: something the government has deliberately stifled in their attempt to dog whistle undecided voters.

Unfortunately, in places like the West Coast, people have hardened their attitude towards environmentalists. Those who stand up in those areas need a lot of support due to the ignorance, fear and intimidation that are thought to be acceptable or even traditional. Many of these outspoken “barbeque a greenie” types are recent arrivals who playup to the locals in an attempt to fit in.

In fear of stating the obvious: much of rural New Zealand has been socially and economically marginalised. The defensiveness shown against middle-class city dwellers and their causes is understandable, when many of the most capable have left. These places export their youth to larger centres and some of the people left behind are clearly stuck in a mental rut. No one, young or old, wants outsiders ramming medicine down their throats. That’s why in the end it will be West Coasters who will ultimately decide to stop these destructive and unsustainable industries. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make ’em drink. That’s why information not propaganda is needed.

The information war is really for the minds and votes of middle New Zealand. This is exactly the kind of information that needs to be publicised. Information that is easy to understand and is authoritative. We need to not only treasure the wild places, but also to somehow support the local people. They are the ones, in the end, who will swing the debate against our excessive levels of mining.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 16 August, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

Hi John, thanks for the thoughts. It’s great to know it’s appreciated. (Obviously I can’t claim any credit for all the time and work that the speaker and associates have spent.)

I think some changes in lifestyle are definitely needed, whether it happens voluntarily or through a shocking necessity when there’s no longer an alternative. It looks as if I somehow missed it in my notes, but Prof. Craw made several references his belief that the compared with the type of pollution the agricultural industry gets away with already (thinking of water quality I guess), the mining industry’s relatively minor. I guess the agriculture sector is another one that’s been polarised a lot in the way you describe. If you pick up some of the regular farmer-targeted media, the message that goes out that way is very different from what people in a typical city get.

#5 Comment By John K On 19 August, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

Cheers Mike,

That is interesting and I guess that makes sense when you compare the size of the area affected by agricultural pollution against that of mining pollution. I think many people still think of farming as a kind of pre-industrial occupation. When in reality most farming is on an industrial scale. Especially since WWII, when ex-fighter pilots started bombing the land with fertiliser.

That takes us back to mining in places like Nauru and the Rift valley of Africa, not to mention the world’s oil reserves. Industrial scale diary farming is the ultimate in unsustainable industry. I’m sounding a bit like the Marvin the paranoid robot (Hitch-hiker’s guide) but global prices will inevitably collapse and possibly the soil with it. Compliance with environmental standards is already low and as the commodity price falls, compliance will only get worse.

At least now people are starting to cotton on to this and some are waking up to the fact that consumers hold the key to this particular money go round.

JK