At Last, a Government Minister Tells the Truth About Gold Mining
Oceana Gold (New Zealand) Ltd has been refused consent under the Overseas Investment Act to buy land to expand its Waihi gold mines. Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage says expansion of gold mining at Waihi is inherently unsustainable, poses potentially large environmental and economic risks should tailings reservoirs fail, will increase climate-damaging emissions, and will provide only moderate employment benefits.
For 40 years members of environmental group Coromandel Watchdog have been saying that gold mining and tailings dams are unsustainable. I can remember making a submission to the Environment Court 20 years ago that placing toxic mine tailings in a man-made reservoir in perpetuity at Waihi could never meet the definition of “sustainable management” in the Resource Management Act. Nobody took my submission seriously.
Now, finally, we have a Government Minister in Eugenie Sage who understands and has the courage to act on these truths.
OceanaGold wished to buy the farmland and extend its Waihi operations for an extra 9 years beyond 2028 under “Project Quattro”
The Minister rightly says that would be at odds with the government’s goal to support “thriving and sustainable” regions and the country’s transition to a carbon-neutral economy.
Part of that strategy is to encourage energy-efficient industries over energy-intensive activities like mining. The use of the land to establish a third permanent tailings reservoir is “inconsistent with sustainable economic interests,” she says.
“It is difficult for an economic benefit to be truly substantial if it is not sustainable. The nature of the proposed investment in non-renewable resource extraction is inherently unsustainable”
In addition to concluding that more mining at Waihi was a negative for climate policy she also argued that the economic impact was also negative when weighed against the risk of a tailings dam failure. She cited mining tailings reservoirs inherently create environmental risks arising from potential breaches, overflows, or structural failures, and these environmental risks have direct and indirect economic costs. Related clean-up costs may fall on the local community, Council, and central government.
Sage also said the mine had done little to lift the district’s $23,000 median income,
Here are some actual quotes from her decision –
Low Incomes Persist in Waihi
“the Waihi mine has been operating for some time yet the medium personal income and the Hauraki District is only $23,000. This suggests that the applicant’s investment and operation is not necessarily generated substantial and identifiable benefits for the immediately affected community at Waihi.”
Significant Natural Areas Lost
“The property includes 15 ha of indigenous vegetation which forms part of a significant natural area under the Hauraki District Plan. The tailings impoundment will destroy 5 ha of the significant natural area”
No Certainty of Environmental Protection under RMA
“The land is close to the Ohinemuri River which flows into the Firth of Thames. The Firth of Thames is an important site for waders and shorebirds, and is listed as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. The Minister notes there is no certainty around protection been provided through the Resource Management Act process.”
More Emissions When We Need Fewer
“The acquisition of the land will enable more mining and therefore more emissions which could encumber New Zealand’s transition to a net-zero emissions economy. The government has agreed that the transition to a net-zero emissions economy is in New Zealand’s interests.”
“The governments’ priorities include “a broader measure of success” that goes beyond a narrow definition of economic benefit, supporting “thriving and sustainable regions,” and transitioning to a “clean, green and carbon-neutral New Zealand”
“When considering the potential for “substantial and identifiable benefits”, the Minister considers it is important to distinguish between investment and sustainable enterprises, and investment in non-renewable resource extraction that creates environmental and economic risks and takes productive land out of circulation for long periods of time.”
Mining Inherently Unsustainable
“Ensuring the long-term economic well-being of New Zealanders is reliant on shifting New Zealand’s economy to a sustainable, circular model that operates within the boundaries of natural ecosystems. Part of this is encouraging energy-deficient industries over energy-intensive industries. Where non-renewable resources are used for economic gain, the focus should be on adding value to each unit of resource, rather than extracting extra units. It is difficult for an economic benefit to be truly substantial if it is not sustainable. The nature of the proposed investment and non-renewable resource extraction is inherently unsustainable “
Land Lost to Farming
“The land is currently highly productive farmland used for food production. If the land was to be used to create a tailings reservoir is likely that some of the land would be contaminated and lost for food production. The hazardous and toxic nature of the mining waste restricts options for future uses of the land including food production and, potentially, housing or recreation.”
Economic and Environmental Risks of Mine Tailings
“Mining tailings reservoirs inherently create environmental risks arising from potential breaches, overflows, or structural failures, and these environmental risks have direct and indirect economic costs. Related clean-up costs may fall on the local community, Council, and central government.”
“The Minister accepts that New Zealand’s resource management framework may go some way to minimising the risk of a tailing dam failure. However, it will not completely absolved that risk and every year there are significant failures. The highest profile tailings dam breaches with the highest economic costs have happened in the developing world such as Brazil’s Corrego do Fiejao mine, where over 200 people were killed by 62,000,000 m³ of toxic mining waste being washed down a river valley in January 2019”
“Tailing dam breaches have also occurred in developed countries with extensive regulatory regime is in place such as Canada, Israel and the United States, and in mines owned or managed by established mining companies. It is prudent to consider the possibility of such an event in New Zealand. These events can have significant direct adverse economic effects on local ecosystems and nearby population centres, and substantially reduce the value of affected ecosystem services such as drinking water sources.”
“A collapsible or overtopping of the proposed new tailings impoundments risks major harm to nearby land, the Ohinemuri River, the Firth of Thames, and New Zealand’s economic interests (in terms of response and rehabilitation costs).”