Mining plan beyond the pale

I have never been to Happy Valley, but I am delighted there is a campaign to protect this beautiful West Coast valley from an open-cast coal mine.

Two weeks ago, the campaign celebrated its two-year occupation of the site as the longest environmental occupation in our history. Bravo!

Coal is one of the dirtiest, most climate-destroying fuels and despite Government rhetoric for New Zealand to become carbon neutral, the state-owned enterprise Solid Energy has an aggressive growth strategy for coal production which includes a new mine at Happy Valley.

The area is about 20km north-east of Westport and by all accounts is an outstanding example of the biodiversity of New Zealand. In 1998 the Department of Conservation recommended much of it be protected under DOC’s Protected Natural Areas Programme. Alas, the proposal did not get off the ground, with Solid Energy applying to destroy the area.

It is a bold plan and the figures must have impressed government ministers when they no doubt saw a power-point presentation from Solid Energy at the Beehive.

The government company plans a 256-hectare mine (about 350 football fields) which would involve removing 29 million cubic metres of rock and soil covering the coal and then digging two enormous pits up to 100 metres deep. Half-a-million tonnes of coal would be extracted each year for 10 years, most of which would be shipped offshore to fuel foreign industries. After all this, they say they will rehabilitate the site, at which even the least cynical of us will say – yeah, right!

Just across from Happy Valley is Solid Energy’s Stockton mine which has been seriously polluting local waterways for many years. The Greenpeace submission opposing the Happy Valley mine summed it up like this: “Acid mine drainage, coal fines and other sediments from the Stockton mine have virtually destroyed the ecology of the Mangatini Stream and severely degraded the lower Ngakawau River. Seepage from a diversion channel from Mount Frederick Mine and from the nearby water treatment lake contains aluminium, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, nickel, iron and zinc.”

Mining exposes all types of chemicals to air and water whereby acids are formed, which in turn release heavy metals from other rock material. These highly acidic waterways and dangerous metals create ecological havoc downstream. It is not safe to drink even after boiling.

Pete Lusk, from the Buller Conservation group, observed a couple of years back that the Mangatini Stream is so polluted it acts like a herbicide, with the mist rising from the Mangatini Falls killing the surrounding rainforest.

So what does Solid Energy plan to destroy? Aside from the obvious physical beauty of the area, many endangered species, habitats and ecological areas are caught up in the plan. Reading the detailed reports, you don’t need to be a tree-hugger to appreciate the depth of devastation the mine would leave in its wake.

Take just the wetland component for example. These areas were regarded as wasteland and early European settlers drained them for farmland. We are now only just beginning to understand their huge ecological significance. Put simply, they are important for the health of the planet and its ecology. In New Zealand, where 90 per cent of our wetlands have been destroyed, we are down to the dregs.

The spin from Solid Energy and its paid experts should be seen as the green-wash it is. Their highly publicised removal of 6000 endangered snails from the area is meant to improve their public image and convince us the company is really a conservation organisation in disguise.

Most of us accept that damage to the environment will be a consequence of most human activity, but the ecological vandalism proposed at Happy Valley is beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, Solid Energy has harassed the campaigners. It employed security firm Thompson and Clarke to infiltrate the Save Happy Valley environmental group and spy on the protest camp. Last October, the police joined in and included the group in its nationwide so-called anti-terror raids.

Despite all this, the campaign continues. Even if most of us never travel to Happy Valley, we should be pleased if the efforts of committed Kiwi conservationists can preserve this part of the country for the future.

More than 30 years ago, I joined thousands of volunteers around New Zealand collecting signatures for the Save Manapouri Campaign. That campaign was successful in spite of the government, and our country is much the better for it. We should all work to get the same result at Happy Valley because ecologically New Zealand is down to the last bite of our clean green apple.

As the protest banner says: Happy Valley is worth more than its weight in coal.